Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter takes a break during his nomination hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on February 4, 2015.

Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter takes a break during his nomination hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on February 4, 2015. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Carter Survives To Fight Another Day

The Defense Secretary nominee plays it safe amid mostly gentle questioning.

Ashton Carter received a friendly grilling from senators during his confirmation hearing to be the next Pentagon chief Wednesday, one of whom mistakenly referred to the nominee prematurely as “Secretary Carter.”

As expected, the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday became an indictment of Obama administration policies by mostly Republican critics who think the White House’s national security strategy is at best misguided or at worst, nonexistent.

“This hearing really isn’t about Ash Carter,” Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina declared before launching into an attack on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, listing Ukraine, ISIS, al-Qaeda and China as examples.

Carter is widely expected to be confirmed and sworn in within a couple of weeks as Obama’s fourth defense secretary. Carter, the Pentagon’s deputy until 2013, appeared well-prepared for a barrage of questions from senators on several military policy issues, from sexual assault to acquisition, the nation’s nuclear strength and detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Many questions were left vague or seemed intentionally to allow Carter wiggle room: Republican hawk Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire asked Carter if he would pledge not to allow any fighters to be released from Guantanamo Bay if he thought that a detainee would return to the battlefield as a fighter, giving Carter the opportunity to provide an easy answer.

“With everything else I do, I’ll play it absolutely straight,” said Carter, employing a line he used repeatedly during the hearing.

There were more pointed exchanges over administration policy in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. And in many ways, Carter hinted that he would be his own man even while cloaking himself in White House policy goals.

(RelatedAsh Carter May Lean Forward on Iraq, Syria, But Not Too Far)

In one instance, Carter acknowledged that he thought providing lethal assistance to Ukrainian forces was a good idea, in what amounts to a slightly more forward-leaning stance on the crisis there, but also one that has been under consideration for some time.

“I very much incline in that direction,” Carter said to a question from McCain.

Amid criticism that the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq only to give rise to the Islamic State the U.S. military is now assisting the Iraqis to fight, there is increasing worry that the same thing could happen in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been engaged in war for more than 13 years. The plan to draw down forces there, announced by Obama last year, will leave only a handful of troops there after next year. Many critics of the administration think that leaves too few U.S. troops there and exposes the country to the risk that the Taliban and even al-Qaida could return. Did Carter support the current plan, senators asked.

With everything else I do, I’ll play it absolutely straight.
Ashton Carter, nominee for secretary of defense

“I understand we have a plan, the president has a plan, I support that plan,” Carter said in response to the question from Sen. John McCain, chairman of the panel. “At the same time, it's a plan. And if I'm confirmed, and I ascertain as the years go by that we need to change that plan, I will recommend those changes to the president.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina with whom McCain is often aligned on foreign policy issues, agreed that that would be too few troops. “I think that is beyond unwise,” Graham said.

In the meantime, in the immediate wake of the revelation that the Jordanian pilot held captive by the Islamic State, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, had been burned alive, some senators pushed Carter to better define administration policy against the group. In recent weeks, the White House has deemphasized the focus on removing the Assad regime in Damascus in favor of defeating the Islamic State primarily from Iraq. That has angered administration critics who fear the White House is backing down from its pledge to push for regime change. Graham and McCain both pushed Carter to say that the administration was still intent on eliminating Syrian President Bashar-al Assad.

“The forces that we are supporting there have first and foremost the job of defeating ISIL,” Carter said. “But I believe they also need to be creating the conditions for the removal of Assad.”

That drew a sharp rebuke from McCain. “You didn’t respond,” McCain said. “The morality of that alone, much less the unworkability of it, I hope you rethink your answer to Senator Graham’s question,” McCain said. “This idiocy of cooperating with the Iranians, and taking ISIL first, of which Bashar al-Assad is the father, is nonsense, and as I say, immoral.”

The Republicans weren’t the only critics of Obama’s policies. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has expressed concerns about the White House’s pledge to keep ground forces out of the war – a central question to U.S. military policy in the Middle East. Obama has been adamant that “combat ground forces” not be included, even if others inside his administration, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have hinted that ground forces to accompany Iraqi forces as trainers or to call in airstrikes could be needed.

The forces that we are supporting there have first and foremost the job of defeating ISIL,” Carter said. “But I believe they also need to be creating the conditions for the removal of Assad.
Ashton Carter, nominee for secretary of defense

Carter didn’t indicate that he was willing to go that far, but he left himself room to manage the war effort.

“Do you think it is possible for the United States military to eliminate ISIL on our own or even with other Western nations if the region doesn't go all in to combat the homegrown jihadism that is exemplified in its most brutal form by ISIL?” asked Kaine.

Carter employed a word he used throughout the hearing: that he was intent on creating a “lasting” effect on ISIL.

“We have to have regional partners because we have to make sure that the defeat inflicted upon ISIL is a lasting defeat. And for that, there needs to be a -- conditions created in the -- where ISIL is now occupying territory that don't make it a breeding ground for victory for that kind of in -- of -- what's the right word -- malignant and vicious kind of terrorism,” he said.

The subtext of Wednesday’s hearing, however, was defined by the popular narrative in Washington that the White House micromanages national security policy at the Pentagon from across the Potomac River. It’s a charge made by former defense secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and hinted at more recently by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whose resignation was forced by the White House.

Tillis, the Republican from North Carolina, asked how Carter would handle the National Security Council. Without addressing the charge, Carter returned to the line he’s expected to use for the foreseeable future when asked about his relations with the White House.

“I intend to be what I've always been in all the decades I've worked in the Department of Defense, which is I'll be entirely straight and up front with the president and -- and make my advice as cogent and as useful to him in making his decisions as I possibly can,” he said.