© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Secretary Of Defense Nominee Appears Headed For Easy Confirmation


The threat of ISIS is among the challenges that may soon be on the to-do list of Ashton Carter. He's President Obama's choice to be defense secretary, and Carter had a key job interview today. He testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Carter, a theoretical physicist and medieval scholar, has years of experience at the Pentagon where he served as the top arms buyer and as the department's second in command. NPR's David Welna reports the top job is now within reach.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Ashton Carter wanted to be defense secretary when that job opened up two years ago, but President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel instead. Now that Hagel's resigned, reportedly under pressure, Obama's had a chance for a do-over. And today it was clear that unlike with Hagel, this is a nomination that John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, fully endorses.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Doctor Carter, I sincerely hope the president who nominated you will empower you to lead and contribute to the fullest extent of your abilities because at a time of multiplying threats to our security, America needs a strong secretary of defense now more than ever.

WELNA: McCain was alluding to reports that the White House has tried to micromanage the Pentagon and frustrated the three previous defense secretaries. Carter assured the committee that if he does get the job, he would, quote, "play it straight."


ASHTON CARTER: I have promised President Obama that if I am confirmed, I will furnish him my most candid strategic advice.

WELNA: Carter balanced that commitment to independence with another pledge that when the president makes a decision, he will make sure the Pentagon implements it. There should be plenty of opportunities. McCain pressed Carter on whether he supports sending weapons to Ukraine, a policy McCain has long advocated. Carter said the U.S. needs to support the Ukrainians.


CARTER: I inclined in the direction of providing them with arms including to get to what I'm sure your question is - lethal arms.

WELNA: That's not yet official U.S. policy. McCain also asked Carter if the U.S. has a strategy for defeating ISIS. Carter replied that it does.


MCCAIN: What do you understand the strategy to be?

CARTER: I think the strategy connects ends and means, and our ends with respect to ISIL needs to be its lasting defeat.

WELNA: If the end is lasting defeat, the means, Carter said, would be relying on Iraq's security forces and on newly-trained moderate Syrian rebels. McCain scoffed.


MCCAIN: That doesn't sound like a strategy to me.

WELNA: And South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham pressed Carter on the details of that strategy. He pointed out that the U.S. is helping rebels fight the Islamic State but not their main opponent, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: How does this work without dealing with Assad?

WELNA: Carter said, first things first - the U.S. priority is to help rebels defeat the Islamic State.


CARTER: But I believe that they also need to be creating the conditions for the removal of Assad. That's a much more complex task. I understand that. I'm not trying to over simplify it, but I think that's got to be at the end of the road.

WELNA: McCain then grilled Carter on Afghanistan. The armed services chairman wanted to know if Carter agreed that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan should be tied to the calendar which calls for all but a thousand U.S. forces to leave that nation by the end of next year. Carter replied that the U.S. should, quote, "finish the job there."


CARTER: The president has a plan. I support that plan. 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.

WELNA: It was another flash of independence by Carter that will likely help win him wide bipartisan support when his confirmation comes up for a vote in the Senate, possibly as soon as next week. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.