Defense Nominee Will Have an Easy Path to a Difficult Job

Senators lined up to praise Ashton Carter, but the Pentagon’s former No. 2 will return to a different Defense Department and a different set of threats.

Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Defense Secretary Nominee Ashton Carter
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 04: Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (L) is escorted by Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) after arriving at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the full Senate, Carter will succeed Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ashton Carter, the White House’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, only left the five-sided building a little over a year ago, but his nomination hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee highlighted just how much the world has changed in the meantime — and just how difficult his new job will be as a result.

When Carter stepped down as deputy defense secretary in December 2013, Russia was in the headlines for the insanely expensive Winter Olympics it was about to host in Sochi. A few months later, violence rocked Kiev and pro-Russian gunmen seized government buildings in Crimea, unleashing months of open combat between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces that continues today.

As for the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, it didn’t exist in December 2013. Few Americans had heard of the militant group, which was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Its brutal tactics were quickly gaining it notoriety, but it had yet to rampage through northern Iraq, seizing vast stretches of territory and major cities like Mosul.

Fast-forward a year and these are the two most vexing national security challenges immediately facing the United States and its allies. They dominated Carter’s hearing Wednesday, and they will likely soak up most of his time and attention when he begins as defense secretary later this month.

“I think we are in a time where the number and severity of the risks is not something I’ve seen before in my life,” Carter told the panel.

Several lawmakers wanted to know whether Carter supported sending arms like anti-tank and anti-mortar weapons to Ukrainian forces.

“I very much incline in that direction because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter said. NATO’s military commander, Army Gen. Philip Breedlove, is also reported to support providing Ukrainian forces lethal assistance. The Obama administration has yet to make a decision, but is believed to be rethinking its earlier opposition to directly arming the Ukrainians.

Carter’s hearing came the day after the Islamic State released a video of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot captured in December when his F-16 crashed in Syria, being burned alive in a cage. It also followed Tuesday’s Capitol Hill visit from Jordan’s King Abdullah, who told lawmakers that the pilot’s barbaric killing has only strengthened his country’s resolve to fight the group.

Abdullah’s visit was still very much on the panel’s mind, with senators asking Carter why it was taking so long for the United States to deliver military equipment and weapons to Jordan, one of the few Arab nations willing to join the United States in mounting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. The United Arab Emirates, an early military partner in the anti-ISIS fight, has largely stopped flying combat missions, according to people familiar with the matter.

“I just couldn’t believe what I heard yesterday, all the red tape that they have to go through to get something on the front lines to help them defend themselves,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.

Every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee signed a letter Wednesday to outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry calling for the urgent provision of weapons to Jordan.

“Jordan is seeking to obtain aircraft parts, additional night vision equipment, and precision munitions that the King feels he needs to secure his border and robustly execute combat air missions into Syria,” the letter reads, calling for them to be expedited through the U.S. foreign military sales system.

Carter said he didn’t know the specifics of Jordan’s situation but that the news didn’t surprise him.

“I have a long experience of frustration with getting equipment to the warfighter — our warfighters, never mind partner warfighters — on time,” he said.

His first priority as defense secretary will be to travel to Iraq to discuss the situation with U.S. military leaders there, Carter said. Iraq’s armed forces, which largely disintegrated during the Islamic State’s initial advances, are being reconstituted with U.S. help in preparation for an offensive this spring designed to reclaim control of Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq.

Carter agreed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, that the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, posed a threat to the U.S. homeland and a far more immediate threat to the broader Middle East. But he also put Iran, a sworn enemy of the Islamic State that is currently indirectly aiding American efforts against the group, in that same category.

“I think that we have two immediate, substantial dangers in the Middle East: One is ISIL and one is Iran,” he said, highlighting just how complicated the security landscape has become since he left the Pentagon over a year ago.

Afghanistan, one of Carter’s top priorities when he was deputy defense secretary, was only covered briefly at the hearing.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they were worried that the White House’s current timetable for withdrawing most American troops by the end of 2016 would risk losing the fragile security gains made at great cost by American and Afghan troops.

Carter said he supported the president’s current plan, but added, “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.”

Republican senators did not miss the opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its strategy — or lack thereof — for dealing with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Obama administration officials have been subtly shifting their stance on Assad in recent weeks, backing away from demands that he immediately step down. His military, in addition to fighting more moderate rebel groups that oppose his regime, is also battling the Islamic State, and could be crucial to kicking the group out of its strongholds in Syria.

Carter said the Syrian rebels receiving training and weapons from the United States would focus first on defeating the Islamic State, but that they would also need to be creating the conditions for the removal of Assad. For the rebels, toppling a dictator they hold responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths is as important as fighting the Islamic State. Many U.S. allies, particularly Turkey, also want Washington to devote as much attention to ousting Assad as it does toward battling the Islamic State.

In what was perhaps the most intense moment of the hours-long hearing, McCain urged Carter to “rethink his answer” about how the United States can train Syrian rebels and send them back to their country to fight without assuring them protection from Assad. McCain said that kind of approach was “nonsense and immoral.”

But other than this rebuke, the tone of the hearing was respectful, deferential, and tame. That was a stark difference from the treatment Hagel received when he appeared before the committee two years ago for his confirmation hearing.

Hagel’s hearing was an eight-hour-long slog that almost cost him the job. Hagel was formerly a Republican senator who often broke with his party on foreign-policy decisions; his Republican colleagues carried old disagreements and grudges that played out during the confirmation process. Where Carter’s hearing stuck to the threats of today, Hagel’s hearing was backward-looking, re-debating the Iraq troop surge of 2007 and interrogating him for his Senate record, especially decisions he took regarding Israel.

There were multiple attacks from Republicans at Hagel’s hearing, with the most aggressive questions coming from McCain and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. On Wednesday, Cruz skipped most of the Carter hearing, only making an appearance toward the end right before it was his turn to ask a few questions.

Hagel did not exude confidence, and stumbled several times, including mistakenly saying that the U.S. had a containment policy towards Iran’s nuclear program.

Carter’s performance, by comparison, was steady and forthright.

He is expected to be swiftly confirmed, most likely before the Senate goes on recess Feb. 16. Republican critics of the Obama administration let him off the hook for what they see as the White House’s foreign-policy mistakes.

“I think it’s very clear with the questions that are being asked today, this hearing really isn’t about Ash Carter,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina. “I think there’s a lot of confidence in your ability and I think there are few public servants as qualified as you for the nomination.”

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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