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June 19th, 2019

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Ashton's sweet nothings: Washington hawks swooned over Carter

Dana Milbank

By Dana Milbank

Published Feb. 5, 2015

Ashton Carter listens to Senators at the hearings for his nomination as Secretary of Defense

The hawks were swooning.

Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee to be the next defense secretary, gave the Senate Armed Services Committee every indication Wednesday that he would be a hard-liner at the Pentagon and a strong counterweight to administration doves — and conservatives on the panel were besotted.

"We all look forward to having you as our partner," purred Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"I look forward to supporting your confirmation," cooed Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) dispensed with flirtation, calling the nominee "Secretary Carter" before revising that to "soon-to-be Secretary Carter."

Even retired senator Joe Lieberman, a neo-conservative Democrat, joined the celebration with a speech telling the panel how he "bonded personally" with Carter at a military meeting with Russians when they were "the only two members of the American delegation to keep up with the vodka toasts."

The normally irascible McCain was in such high spirits that he twice spoke of his "beloved friend" Lieberman, "a member of this committee since the Coolidge administration."

Lieberman replied, "It was a great comfort to me when I arrived during the Coolidge administration to find that you had already been here several years."

McCain beamed at this joke. Everybody knows he didn't arrive in the Senate until the Hoover administration.

With such joyful sounds of young love in the air, it seems churlish to point out the obvious: This relationship will almost surely end in tears, like those before it.

Bob Gates. Leon Panetta. Chuck Hagel. Each time, lawmakers hoped that the defense secretary would be a forceful voice for the military's interests within the administration. And each man wound up getting rolled by whippersnappers at the White House who took a more docile view of American power but were closer to Obama. And the problem is broader than the Pentagon: Hillary Clinton at the State Department and David Petraeus at the CIA had hawkish views but were no match for the insiders in the White House's National Security Council.

Is there reason to believe Carter, a technocrat and longtime Pentagon official, will be different? He's more of a hard-liner than Hagel, but he has less independent political clout than his three predecessors.

Carter has staked out tough positions on arming Ukraine and fighting the Islamic State — but Obama's decision-making is dominated by White House staff chief Denis McDonough and national security adviser Susan Rice, who seem loath to take a more aggressive approach in Ukraine or Syria for fear it could jeopardize a nuclear deal with Iran. Carter is also passionate about boosting Pentagon spending — but his masters in the White House, though requesting more funds for defense, have a decidedly more domestic emphasis.

McCain, at least, seemed aware that his budding relationship with Carter could go south.

"Two of your predecessors, Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta, have severely criticized White House micromanagement of the Defense Department and overcentralization of foreign and defense policy," he said. "According to numerous news reports, Secretary Hagel experienced similar frustrations. ... I sincerely hope the president who nominated you will empower you to lead."

Yes, they can always hope that this time it will all be different. And that's exactly what lawmakers and the nominee did Wednesday.

Carter called for an end to budget cuts that painted a "diminished picture of our power," and he said that "finishing the job" in Afghanistan "is very important." He said he's inclined to provide defensive arms to Ukraine and would "absolutely" resist pressure from colleagues to speed the closure of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a new senator, asked Carter whether he agreed with Obama's "almost delusional" view that "the shadow of crisis has passed" and that "we're stopping" the Islamic State's advance, opposing Russian aggression and halting Iran's nukes.

Carter replied that we're "confronting some of the most challenging problems that we've had in our national security in a very long time." He later confessed that "the number and severity of the risks is not something I've seen before in my life."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked a series of rapid-fire questions.

"Do you think the Iranians have to believe that a military option's on the table during these nuclear negotiations?"

"Absolutely ..."

"Do you think the Russians are being provocative at a time when the world is already in chaos?"

"Yes ..."

"Do you think China is intimidating their neighbors?"

"Certainly trying to."

"Can you tell me, in light of all of this, why in the hell would the Congress be devastating the military budget?"

"No, I can't."

Carter's sweet nothings were just what the hawks wanted to hear. But will he break their hearts like all the ones before him?

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation's capital.

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