Ash Carter may face ‘rocky’ confirmation hearing for Defense secretary

Despite bipartisan support and years of experience in the Defense Department, Ash Carter’s confirmation hearing to be Defense secretary might not be smooth sailing.

Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar at American University’s School of International Service, said Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) may ask the 60-year-old nominee some tough questions.

“His confirmation hearing is probably going to be quite rocky,” Bensahel said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “Sen. [John] McCain … has already said he intends to use the hearing as a mechanism to criticize the administration’s foreign policy.”

Nora Bensahel
Carter’s hearing is scheduled for the first week in February. McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services, wanted to hold the hearing in January, but Carter asked for a delay to have more recovery time from back surgery.

In a statement published in December, McCain said he sees Carter’s hearing as a “valuable opportunity to fully ventilate” issues around foreign policy and national security.

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But McCain also expressed his support for Carter, describing him as a “highly competent, experienced, hard-working, and committed public servant.”

Bensahel said Carter is likely to be confirmed unanimously, or at least close to it.

If confirmed, Defense acquisition reforms and military personnel issues will be at the forefront.

Carter has close ties to Defense acquisition — before serving as deputy secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013, he was undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from 2009 to 2011.

“When you’re Secretary of Defense, you also have to be involved in world issues,” Bensahel said. “As much as he would like to make [acquisition reform] one of the achievements of his tenure if he is confirmed, that’s going to be a very, very difficult area to make progress on.”

The next Defense secretary will also face a host of decisions around personnel issues, including workforce cuts and reductions in benefits.

Unlike acquisition reform, which faces much debate within the Pentagon, personnel changes are mostly a political issue, Bensahel said. Many veterans groups, retired officers associations and active duty service members strongly oppose changes to benefits.

“There is tremendous political opposition that gets very concentrated and focuses on key members in Congress, so there has not been a lot of congressional willingness to take that on,” she said.

Unlike many past defense secretaries, Carter has not served in the military, nor has he been a member of Congress. Aside from his previous positions at the Pentagon, he has worked several years in academia, as a nuclear physicist and even studied medieval politics.

“I don’t think he’s going to be particularly easy to peg, ideologically. He’s an analyst and scientist at heart, and I think he will approach problems in that way, looking for practical solutions,” Bensahel said.

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