WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's pick to run the Pentagon was grilled Wednesday by Republicans who used his confirmation hearing to criticize White House foreign policy on every front — from battling Islamic State militants to supporting Ukraine to trying to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Ashton Carter is on the fast track to being the president's fourth defense secretary in six years, but despite recent back surgery he endured several hours of questioning by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, now in Republican control.
Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., praised the nominee as an honest, hard-working and respected defense professional. Then he pounced on Obama's strategy to combat Islamic State militants, who have seized territory in Iraq and Syria and have drawn worldwide condemnation for their brutal killings, including burning a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage.
McCain pointedly asked Carter what the administration's strategy was to confront IS.
Carter said the goal was to defeat the Islamic State forces in a way that "once they are beaten they stay beaten." In Iraq, that will be the job of the Iraqi security forces, which Carter said he understood would begin to take back territory in coming months. In Syria, the U.S. is helping build a fighting force of moderate Syrian regional forces to take on the militants.
"It doesn't sound like a strategy to me," McCain said. "It sounds like a series of goals."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., peppered Carter with questions about U.S. policy on Syria, where civilians are dodging bullets and bombs from President Bashar Assad's forces in the crossfire of a war that has killed 200,000.
"How can we train up a Free Syrian Army or send any other force into Syria if we don't first deal with the Assad air threat?" Graham asked. "How in the world could you train somebody to go fight IS and then one day, they turn on Assad and not expect him to kill them before they get the capacity to come after him one day? How does this work without dealing with Assad?"
Carter said he agreed that both IS and Assad are problems in Syria. The forces the U.S. is supporting have the job of defeating IS, but they also need to be creating the conditions for the ouster of Assad, he said. "That's a much more complex task. I understand that. I'm now trying to oversimplify it, but I think that's got to be at the end of the road," Carter said.
McCain wasn't satisfied with that answer either.
"You really didn't respond, in all due respect, Dr. Carter, to sending young Syrians in — training them in Saudi Arabia and sending them into Syria to be barrel-bombed by Bashar Assad," McCain said. "I hope you will rethink your answer."
Even though Carter faces an easy confirmation as early as next week, the 60-year-old physicist by training — and a highly regarded thinker on strategy, budgets and policy — was subjected to some four hours of questioning.
The Philadelphia native served twice previously in Obama's Pentagon, most recently as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013. He was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during the administration of President Bill Clinton. He is steeped in the intricacies of missile defense, U.S. nuclear weapons, U.S.-China relations and the evolution of North Korea's nuclear program.
While he has the resume for the job, it's unclear whether Carter would find more success than current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in jelling with Obama's inner circle. The president's relationship with the Pentagon has often been strained and McCain said he hoped Carter would push back on any attempt by the White House to micromanage the Defense Department, or over-centralize U.S. foreign and defense policies.
"I'll be entirely straight and upfront with the president and make my advice as cogent and useful to him in making his decisions as I can," Carter said.
Carter expressed views on myriad topics, including:
—UKRAINE: McCain asked if the U.S. should provide defensive arms to Ukraine, which is battling anti-government rebels backed by neighboring Russia. So far the White House has refrained because Obama doesn't want to start a proxy war with Russia, and Obama also feels no amount of arms would put Ukraine on par with the Russian military.
"I incline in the direction of providing them with arms," Carter replied.
—IRAN: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked about the national security implications to the United States if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapon.
"In a phrase, exceptionally grave," Carter said. "First of all, they might use them, but second, their having them is likely to stimulate others to get them."
"They have the ambition to wipe off the map other states in the region, namely Israel. They have a long history of behaving in a disruptive way, of supporting terrorism, of trying to undermine other governments of operating around the world. ... They're not the kind of people you want to have nuclear weapons."
—AFGHANISTAN: Carter said he would consider recommending a change of plans for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 if security conditions worsen. About 10,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
Carter said 2,106 American service members have lost their lives in Afghanistan. "Finishing the job there is very important," he said.
—SEXUAL ASSAULT: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., expressed serious concern about 20,000 reported cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact within the military last year and how more than half of those who reported it faced some form of retaliation. Carter agreed that the problem of sexual assault persists in the military.
"I think the idea that victims are retaliated against, not only by the hierarchy above them, but by their peers, is something that is unacceptable," he said.
—DEFENSE SPENDING: Carter told committee members that he will seek better use of taxpayer dollars but that Congress must bring stability back to the military's budget by getting rid of automatic spending cuts — known as sequestration.