U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks during U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks during U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The GOP’s Fake Controversy Over Colin Kahl Is Just the Beginning

Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans who call Biden’s Pentagon-policy pick too political are fooling nobody.

The supposed bipartisanship of the House and Senate Armed Services committees is one of my favorite myths about Washington. No matter how vitriolically encamped the country and every other member of Congress may be, so the legend goes, the legislature’s national-security monks eventually rise above it all and, around Christmas usually, pass a defense authorization bill because, you know, the troops. It’s supposed to prove their American-ness, or something. And it’s all hogwash. 

The committee’s true partisan nature is revealed, most recently, by the maneuverings surrounding the confirmation of Colin Kahl, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the Pentagon’s powerful top policy job. Every Republican on the committee opposed his nomination on Wednesday, yet he likely will get the job anyway, now that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has decided to get on board. 

But Kahl is not the fight the Biden administration should worry about. From the looks of it, Republicans on Armed Services and throughout Congress are lining up to fight the new commander in chief on a long list of defense and foreign policy issues. Kahl’s hearing is only one of several already this year in which Republicans have tossed bipartisanship to the wind and made clear they have no intention of treating Biden’s foreign policy with any sheen of American unity. Despite the old adage, politics does not end at the water’s edge. 

If you haven’t been tracking Kahl’s nomination, Republicans have lined up to claim that Kahl is dangerously too partisan for the job of a level-headed defense undersecretary. Their evidence? He tweeted nasty things during the past four years about President Donald Trump and Pentagon-related policies that Republicans favored. 

The good senators, many of whom developed a rather deaf ear over the past four years, were shocked to discover intermittent intemperance in a political nominee. They have sounded as sincere as Scarlett O’Hara. 

“We all agree that he has neither the disposition nor judgment to serve in this critical position at this critical time,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate committee, in a statement by all 13 Republicans who said on Wednesday they would vote against Kahl’s confirmation. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the person who fills the post “should be a level-headed leader.” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said it “requires impartiality and the ability to deliver strategic, nonpolitical military advice.” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said, “This position requires a judicious, even-tempered demeanor.”

Few are buying it. 

“I assume that means that Cotton is rethinking his servile loyalty to former president Donald Trump,” scoffed Max Boot, who ditched his GOP membership in disgust with the party’s support for the former president. Boot is one of the many critics who noted that the Pentagon’s most recent policy undersecretary was Anthony Tata, a conspiracy-forwarding Trump devotee who once called President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.” Tata’s nomination was quietly denied by Republicans; Inhofe said Tata was just “not a real tactful person,” according to the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe. Yet when Trump installed him anyway as an “acting” official, neither Inhofe nor his colleagues uttered much of a public peep. 

By contrast to Tata, Boot says, “Kahl is one of the nation’s most respected international relations scholars and practitioners,” and that he’s “no softy.” That’s the real reason Republicans are coming after Kahl: he was an abashed supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. His confirmation has become the proxy preemptive strike against the Biden administration’s intentions to rejoin or rebuild that deal. 

In other words, by insincerely claiming that Biden’s Pentagon nominee is too political for the Pentagon, committee Republicans are playing politics with the Pentagon. 

There’s a lot more where this is coming from. In Biden’s first 100 days, Republicans on the allegedly bipartisan Armed Services committees have come out guns blazing to attack the president as soft on China and weak on defense spending. All this is months before the administration sends its first Pentagon budget request up to Capitol Hill. 

It’s not just the Armed Services committees either, of course. Elsewhere in Congress and on right-wing airwaves, leading conservatives are bashing Biden over China policy. The Biden administration’s attempts to rid the military of divisive extremists in the ranks have been painted as an “ideological and un-American purge” against conservatives and free speech. Tucker Carlson tried to turn the fact that women serve in the military into a way to slap Biden as weak on China. Fortunately, Carlson’s ridiculously juvenile slurs may have been a bridge too far for most serious Republicans, who watched even active duty senior military officers publicly dress down the talk show host. But it made its point. 

The military is — and always has been — fair game for partisans wishing to use it as a means or a prop for partisan rhetoric and political attacks. Armed Services committee members know this well. Colin Kahl’s record as a Pentagon official is worthy of intense scrutiny — for his support for President Barack Obama’s drone campaign of extrajudicial killing alone. The Wall Street Journal editorial board takes him to task here, and indirectly scolds the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying “there are sound policy reasons” to oppose his nomination more than the hype over his tweets. Even they didn’t believe it. As Scarlett herself would say: “Fiddle-dee-dee.”