As expected, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously Wednesday morning to send Ash Carter’s nomination for defense secretary on to the full Senate. Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants a vote by the end of the week, and with support from the leadership and little else likely to get done before next week’s recess, Carter could be in the Pentagon by Monday morning.
At the outset of a hearing entitled “Global Challenges and U.S. National Security Strategy,” the committee voted 26-0 for Carter’s nomination, with many voting by proxy.
Carter’s nomination was never about Carter, but rather, the president who picked him. Carter is well liked on the Hill and took pains to meet with every member of the Armed Services Committee ahead of his confirmation hearing less than a week ago. He also has held the number 2 and 3 positions in the Pentagon and reportedly was passed over for the position last go-around, when President Obama selected current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Rather than a repeat of the drawn-out, heated congressional confirmation undergone by Hagel, himself a former senator, Carter’s confirmation has so far been quick and easy, in keeping with what McCain and other lawmakers promised. But the process has provided a glimpse into Carter’s thinking and how he will perform in the post amid both a boiling global security landscape and also accusations of White House micromanaging from his three predecessors. Many saw Hagel’s hurried resignation as a rather unceremonious removal.
Both in the hearing and in his responses to lawmakers’ questions for the record, which were obtained by Defense One, Carter hinted at a few areas where he could strike a slightly discordant note with the administration’s national security strategy.
As lawmakers call increasingly loudly for lethal assistance to Ukraine to help it defend itself against a de-facto invasion from Russia, Carter used stronger language than the administration has employed in response to questions of the U.S. role in the conflict and region.
“I reject the notion that Russia should be afforded a ‘sphere of influence,’” Carter said. “If confirmed, I will continue to encourage U.S. partners, such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, to build their security capacity and military interoperability with NATO.”
Regarding Russia’s apparent violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the soon-to-be defense secretary went so far as to suggest that the U.S. should be prepared to consider military responses.
“Potential military responses are a critical component of a strategy directed towards convincing Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty or, if Russia does not return, denying it significant military advantage from violating the Treaty,” Carter said. “I agree that DoD should consider a range of options, including active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces. U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance our responses will make them less secure than they are today.”
Lawmakers have long sought to put daylight between the Pentagon and the White House when it comes to several of the most pressing foreign policy questions — whether or not U.S. boots should be put on the ground in Iraq or Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, how the Islamic State strategy will address the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the withdrawal from Afghanistan amid continued violence and fragility there.
In his additional responses, Carter reiterated statements from his confirmation hearing that he would give the president his candid military advice, reflective of the situation on the ground — but he used slightly stronger language.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior member of the committee, asked Carter: “Would you recommend placing boots-on-the-ground to Congress and the administration to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat, if required?”
Carter responded, “If confirmed, I would, in close consultation with our senior military leaders, provide the President with my best strategic advice as to how to most effectively counter the ISIL threat,” but he noted: “In formulating my advice, I will not hesitate to consider all options.”
One of the only warmer moments in Carter’s confirmation hearing last week came during questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about Carter’s position on Assad. McCain said his answer was insufficient. In his additional response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Carter said, “Assad has lost all legitimacy and cannot be part of the future of Syria. A stable Syria will require both defeating ISIL and a political transition in which Assad is removed from power.”
Carter also reemphasized that should the security situation in Afghanistan devolve further, he will advise President Obama to extend the timeline for withdrawal. “Should security conditions in Afghanistan degrade such that the efficacy of the U.S. strategy is in doubt, or result in a significant increase in risk to our people there, I would consult with my senior military and civilian advisors and provide my best strategic advice to the President about the need for any changes to the size or pace of the drawdown,” he said.
Carter will have to hit the ground running, not only in addressing these foreign policy crises but also in selling the administration’s fiscal 2016 budget request that came in more than $30 billion over budget caps. The White House is also asking Congress to consider what could be some of the most sweeping reforms to the military compensation system in years, and is expected to send over an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, for the Islamic State as soon as Wednesday.
Carter does not want to leave these crucial decisions entirely to lawmakers. “Should Congress appropriate the Department’s full FY 2016 request while failing to amend the Budget Control Act (BCA) … the Congress would make its own decisions on how to reduce the Department’s budget,” Carter said in his responses. “My hope is that we would not face this alternative but, if we do, that those actions would be taken in consultation with the Department.”
Read Carter’s full responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee here.