During his confirmation hearing Wednesday to be the next Pentagon chief, Ashton Carter will attempt to walk a thin line between supporting current Obama administration policy in Iraq and Syria and creating enough distance from the White House to placate anxious Republicans and establish himself as his own man.
Carter, who would be President Barack Obama’s fourth defense secretary, has given little public indication of where his thinking is about the U.S. military’s efforts against the Islamic State. But while Carter isn’t likely to veer far from the current course, at least initially, there’s reason to believe that if confirmed he will have a slightly longer leash to manage the war effort as he sees fit.
Passed over for the top job he coveted more than two years ago, Carter may have expressed to administration officials that he had a keen desire to run the Pentagon, but do it in the best way he knows how.
Republicans in the Senate have made it clear they plan to confirm Carter, who has methodically met with each member of the Senate Armed Services Committee as of Monday. Still, Carter is in for a grilling from Republicans heavily critical of Obama’s foreign policy, several senators have said. As most confirmation hearings go, Carter will likely err on the side of caution, saying just enough to address senators’ concerns while not saying anything that would raise questions about his positions.
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Besides, since he is not yet confirmed and isn’t privy to all the factors at play, Carter really doesn’t know yet what the best way forward is, said Tony Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
“If I was Ash Carter, I would say that the president has preserved his options, that the chairman has indicated that we should at least consider these things, but that as yet, there is no clear decision and that these are issues he will be evaluating to death once he becomes secretary,” Cordesman said.
But on one issue, Carter has already hinted that he has different views than the White House: Afghanistan. In pre-written statements, Carter said he was willing to consider modifying the current drawdown plans for Afghanistan as criticism grows that the current plan, which will leave only a handful of troops there after next year, is bad policy.
In Iraq and Syria, it’s the concern that there is a lack of a coherent strategy that has most Republicans and some Democrats worried. But it’s here where Carter is expected to employ his credibility as the Pentagon’s former deputy to both reinforce the administration’s approach and also demonstrate that he is bringing fresh eyes to the problem.
For months, officials have said no strategy can be founded solely on the military. Carter will reiterate that message, but it may carry more weight. Carter, who is already seen positively by Senate leaders like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will emphasize the broader approach all the more in an effort to seek “lasting” solutions, not short-term fixes.
“The U.S. is at the beginning of what could be a long campaign to degrade and inflict a lasting defeat on ISIL,” Carter wrote in policy answers provided early to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will consider his nomination, and obtained by Defense One. “DOD’s contributions are one part of a whole-of-government strategy and an effort that includes many of the coalition partners to create both the political and military conditions needed for success … political inclusion in Iraq is a key element of countering ISIL in a lasting way.”
Such answers in writing are typically pro forma, but nonetheless reflect some of the candidate’s thinking on matters. Carter’s thinking may be informally connected to that of former U.S. Central Command commander Gen. James Mattis. Mattis, a Marine four-star who retired in May 2013, was peppered with questions last week during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Mattis was asked about creating a no-fly zone to help support moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime in Damascus and the Islamic State across the country. But Mattis was adamant: without agreement on what an “end state” is for Iraq or Syria, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a strategy.
“We don’t lack military capability,” Mattis told the panel. “What we lack is the political will and the definition of the political end state.”
Carter will have other challenges to address during the hearing; most notably, the budget. The Pentagon unveiled on Monday a $585.3 billion budget for fiscal 2016 that ignores Congressionally-mandated budget caps and aims to pay for more operations around the world – to include Iraq and Syria – as well as help modernize the force. If confirmed, Carter will be invited to Capitol Hill soon to defend the budget, even though he wasn’t in office as it was assembled. Although there remains deep concerns about the Budget Control Act of 2011 that could force across-the-board cuts to defense spending, there is also concern in some quarters that the Pentagon will cut too much, too fast. Carter will have to finesse his approach on this issue as well. But as the former deputy defense secretary and the Pentagon’s former weapons buyer, Carter is considered to know well the budgetary issues at play. In the policy answers Carter provided to the committee, he said the Defense Department needs budgetary and spending reform.
“The challenges include preserving and enhancing the finest fighting force in the world and taking care of their families, providing a strategic perspective to the threats and the opportunities in the world; and implementing significant reforms that are crucial at a time of budget uncertainty,” he said.
Carter could find himself in the Pentagon’s E-Ring, confirmed and sworn in, within just two weeks. Don Stewart, spokesman for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he doesn’t expect Carter will have to wait long for a floor vote on his confirmation. “He hasn’t announced a schedule yet for that, but I don’t expect it will be long,” Stewart said.
McCain told Defense One that Carter’s confirmation is expected before the Senate recess Feb.16. McCain said he doesn’t anticipate a committee vote this week or next because the members need time to send Carter questions and review his responses, but that the process will be “expedited.”
“We will do it as soon as possible, I am confident before the recess,” McCain said.
Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.