WASHINGTON: Nomination hearings are never just about the nominee. But today’s Senate lovefest for Ash Carter was remarkably dominated by two men who weren’t in the room: President Obama — in whose defense Carter was actually pretty tepid — and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The Obama White House has simultaneously “micromanag[ed]” the military and been “indecisive,” Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain said in his opening statement, before pledging he and fellow senators would write Obama urging him to expedite aid to Jordan, whose F-16 pilot was so horribly burned alive by ISIL.
The committee’s top Democrat, Jack Reed, asked the presumptive Defense Secretary pointedly whether the current plan to arm the Syrian opposition was a “coherent response” to the situation. “It’s the beginning of a strategic response,” Carter tellingly replied, noting that the rebels have a long way to go.
The phrase that comes to mind is “damning with faint praise.” Alaskan Republican Dan Sullivan dissected Obama’s State of the Union speech, quoting a series of Obama’s statements. He asked Carter if he agreed with them. Carter paused, looked down, waited a bit and replied: “Um, uh, I – I – I certainly agree with the president’s overall thrust.”
For those who think Republicans and Democrats sit across a partisan chasm that is rarely bridged. note how much Carter agreed with a series of propositions from McCain protege Lindsey Graham.
“Do you think ISIL represents a threat to our homeland?” Graham asked.
“I do,” said Carter.
“They say they want to attack us and there’s no reason to believe they’re kidding,” Graham continued.
“Do you think al-Nusra wants to hit us?” Graham asked next.
“Do you think AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] wants to hit us?”
“Do you think the Iranians have to believe that a military option’s on the table in these nuclear negotiations?”
“And if they don’t, we’re making a huge mistake. Right?”
“Do you think the Russians are being provocative at a time when the world’s already in chaos?”
“Do you think that a cyber Pearl Harbor is a potential threat we face?”
“And we’re not ready for it?”
“I agree with that also.”
“Do you think China is intimidating their neighbors?”
“They’re certainly trying to,” Carter said.
“Can you tell me, in the light of all this, why in the hell would Congress be devastating the military budget?” Graham concluded with a rhetorical flourish. “Can you explain that to me?”
“No, I can’t,” said Carter, noting his longstanding opposition to the automatic budget cuts called sequestration — cuts that the Senators (and the president) all strongly oppose as well.
Likewise, Carter replied without hesitation when Sen. Kelly Ayotte asked him if he would make independent decisions without succumbing to White House pressure: “Absolutely.”
Ayotte was specifically asking about the transfer of terrorist suspects from Guantanamo Bay, something Republicans believe the administration has done far too fast and too often. (At least 107 of 620 prisoners released have “reengaged” in terrorism, according to the Director of National Intelligence). But the exchange offered interesting hints about Carter’s attitude towards the White House overall.
Arguably, Carter’s greatest challenge won’t be Syria or sequestration or Russian aggression in the Ukraine — where “I very much incline” toward providing lethal aid, he said, a decision Obama hasn’t officially reached yet. It may well be the White House. For example, Obama reversed himself on striking Syria after a 45-minute walk with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was largely left out of the loop.
Unlike Hagel, however, Carter has the advantage of strong connections inside the Pentagon, where he’s served twice before, strong support in the Senate and enduring links to the Democratic party’s defense specialists. As the Republican other Republicans loved to hate, Hagel got hammered during his confirmation process. Carter, by contrast, got something close to admiration.
McCain called him “one of America’s most experienced and respected defense professionals,” Reed said he was “uniquely qualified,” the conservative Sen. Roger Wicker immediately pledged his vote, and GOP star Kelly Ayotte addressed him as “Secretary Carter” before catching herself and saying “soon-to-be-Secretary” instead. At Carter’s side to introduce him was former SASC stalwart Joseph Lieberman, who reminisced about knocking back vodka with Carter during nuclear proliferation negotiations with Russia in the 1990s.
Despite Hagel’s service in the Senate and in Vietnam, he simply never had this kind of street cred in DC. Carter does, which will make him a much more powerful Secretary of Defense.
One area where Carter’s congressional support and inside-the-Pentagon experience will make a particularly big difference: the notoriously knotty issue of how to buy weapons quickly and at reasonable cost. Carter feels “passionately” about the problem, he said, recounting the trials of getting uparmored Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to the troops in roadside-bomb-ridden Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’ve got to turn faster,” he said, especially as potential adversaries accelerate their modernization and catch up to our technology.
Congress is a highly receptive partner for Carter on this front, with both McCain and House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry having long made acquisition reform a priority. McCain is famous for lambasting Pentagon waste. This morning, his list of mishandled programs ranged from the long-since-cancelled — the Army Future Combat System and Comanche helicopter, the Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and VH-71 presidential helicopter — to current high-profile projects — the Navy Littoral Combat Ship and Ford-class aircraft carrier, the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the Air Force rocket program known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
McCain was particularly tough on EELV today, decrying its dependence on Russian-made rocket motors and how cost per launch has quadrupled while the Air Force “actively keep[s] any other companies from competing,” such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. That’s not entirely fair, since the Air Force has worked hard to get SpaceX certified for safe launch and senior Air Force acquisition officials pledged just before Christmas that Musk’s company will be certified as a safe and reliable partner for Air Force and NRO launches.
Of course, Carter was hardly going to argue McCain on EELV today, or with any senator on anything. That will come later, when the honeymoon inevitably ends. That may come as soon as this spring’s hearings on the administration’s ill-starred 2016 budget plan. Carter will come into those quarrels with a lot more goodwill on the Hill than his predecessor.
Colin contributed to this story.