For months, the go-to Republican critique of President Barack Obama’s national security strategy — which they blame for the current pileup of foreign policy crises across the globe — has been: he has no strategy. But on Wednesday during the confirmation hearing for Ash Carter, Obama’s nominee for the next secretary of defense — perhaps their highest profile opportunity yet to challenge that strategy and try and influence it — many lawmakers balked, instead focusing on personal priorities or facilities back home.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, explained why, after the hearing: “He will manage the Pentagon, and he will do a good job at it, he has significant experience. But there’s no possibility that he will have anything to do with the formulation of national security policy or strategy,” McCain told reporters. “We asked the question, he stated what the goals were [for the Islamic State fight] — he couldn’t articulate a strategy because there is none.”
“What is the strategy? He said it’s to eliminate ISIS, it’s to blah blah — he has no clue. I can’t expect him to give us an answer when there is no answer because there is no strategy.”
By all accounts, lawmakers will not hold up Carter’s confirmation. He is widely liked and Carter met with each and every member of the committee by Monday. But lawmakers previously had explicitly stated that they would use his confirmation hearing to force a clarification of the Obama administration’s national security strategy.
What is the strategy? He said it’s to eliminate ISIS, it’s to blah blah — he has no clue. I can’t expect him to give us an answer when there is no answer because there is no strategy.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Instead McCain, perhaps the most vocal critic of the Obama administration, spent much of his opening statement returning to his roots by attacking pork barrel military spending, which he’s waged a personal war against for years. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a close ally of McCain, asked Carter to pledge that he would not approve transfer for any Guantanamo detainee he thought could threaten national security, though it’s already the existing policy. Democrats Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y. and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Mo., though not always in agreement on the best way forward, both asked Carter to promise to consider long-circulating reforms to reduce retaliation against victims of military sexual assault, as he already has done.
Committee members did find a few bipartisan areas of agreement — namely on inviting Carter to consider, or visit, defense projects in their states.
Even the new Republican committee members, many of whom have direct military or national security experience, and for whom the hearing was one of their first opportunities to flex on defense, also were reserved from pointed questioning for Carter or the Obama administration.
(Read more: Carter Survives To Fight Another Day)
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves who has worked in Washington as an assistant secretary of state and a member of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council staff, focused his early questioning on his home state and its role for the Air Force and energy security. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and the first woman combat veteran elected to the Senate, started with how sequestration impacts the National Guard and Reserves.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and to some extent Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., were the only real exceptions to the GOP freshman class softballing.
Cotton, an Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought Carter back to the controversial swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Tillis accused the president of whitewashing the global security landscape.
“This hearing really isn’t about Ash Carter,” Tillis said. “There seems to be a disconnect between the reality of the threat that we face right now and the way the president portrays it.”
Lawmakers largely accepted Carter’s synopsis of the Obama administration’s strategy: bolster the Iraqi security forces to take back territory from and defeat the Islamic State in Iraq — and keep them defeated — and train up moderate Syrians to be a similar force on the ground in Syria. Only the reliably hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., directly questioned Carter on the overwrought issue of “boots on the ground,” one of Congress’s fundamental disagreements over the strategy against the Islamic State, and only McCain briefly noted that Carter didn’t really answer a question.
There seems to be a disconnect between the reality of the threat that we face right now and the way the president portrays it.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
As McCain put it after the hearing, Carter only gave ends, not means.
“I told him, he didn’t articulate a policy, I didn’t see any reason to beat it,” McCain said. “There is no policy, so I couldn’t expect him to articulate it.” The chairman put that onus on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, “The two or three people that are making all the decisions in the White House.”
During the hearing, Carter repeatedly assured lawmakers he would “play it straight” and give his unvarnished opinion, including on military strategy, to Obama.
“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 make my advice as cogent and as useful to him in making his decisions as I possibly can,” Carter said. “That’s what I can do. That’s what I’ve pledged to do. And that’s what I will do.”
But McCain responded after the hearing, “Sure, he can say whatever he wants to say.”
“Gates was strong, Panetta was strong, Hagel was pretty strong — but none of them had any influence so we certainly wouldn’t expect [Carter] to have any,” McCain said, though he added, “I don’t think he’s a placeholder, he’s a good manager for the Pentagon… there are many areas where he can be a very capable secretary. But he definitely is not going to have anything to do with policy or strategy … that’s just the reality.”