Ashton Carter will lobby senators to end hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts to U.S. military funding during a hearing on whether to confirm him as the next secretary of the Defense Department.
But the tougher challenge for President Barack Obama’s nominee to helm the Pentagon will likely be fielding questions about anything and everything related to Obama’s handling of foreign policy – especially the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to begin Carter’s nomination hearings Wednesday.
Carter’s confirmation doesn’t appear to be in much doubt, even with Republicans in control of the Senate. He’s well-liked by both parties; he’s made the necessary rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting senators one-on-one since his nomination; and as the Pentagon’s former No. 2 official and a doctorate in physics, he’s seen as plenty qualified.
Still, his confirmation hearing could mirror one that Loretta Lynch, Obama’s nominee for attorney general, faced earlier this month. The Senate Judiciary Committee had few major problems with her qualifications or stances on issues, but treated her confirmation hearing as an opportunity to vent their frustrations with the White House.
Here are five questions the 60-year-old Carter could face on Wednesday:
If air strikes alone aren’t working, how can the United States help Arab forces defeat ISIS?
Senate Republicans have been especially critical of Obama’s handling of ISIS, arguing that the President has unnecessarily limited his options by rejecting calls for ground troops to combat the terror organization.
Carter could face specific questions, such as whether the United States could embed special forces with the Arab troops already fighting ISIS, or provide more on-the-ground military aid. He’ll also likely be pressed for specifics of an overall U.S. strategy against ISIS.
Isn’t providing lethal aid to Ukraine risky – and why would that lead Russia to back down?
The United States is reportedly considering sending defensive lethal aid – which could include anti-tank, anti-air and anti-mortar systems – to Ukraine to battle pro-Russian rebels. It’s in response to advances in Russian weapons shipments to Ukraine in recent weeks.
But such a move risks escalating the battle with Russia, and the United States’ role in it. It likely wouldn’t come without the Pentagon also believing Russia could be driven to the negotiating table. The question is how.
Will he continue the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay?
After one former prisoner at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was reported to have attempted to make contact with the Taliban after his release, President Barack Obama’s efforts to shutter the facility – which he’s long said conflicts with U.S. values – is facing even stiffer resistance from congressional Republicans.
He could be grilled on whether he’ll continue to transfer the 54 detainees who have been cleared to be moved and whether he’ll work to advance Obama’s goal of shuttering Gitmo. If so, lawmakers may ask how quickly he expects to move, and what kind of risk for recidivism exists once detainees are moved out of the facility.
Might the United States back off its plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year?
Carter responded “yes” to a committee questionnaire that asked whether he would consider changes to the United States’ troop drawdown plans from Afghanistan if the security situation worsens there.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has long criticized those plans as too specific, and is likely to demand more from Carter.
What more will the Pentagon do to prevent and punish sexual assault in the military?
Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has argued that sexual assault cases should be handled within the military’s existing command structure, rather than taken outside it – as many lawmakers have proposed.
Surveys of service members in recent years have found alarming rates of sexual assaults, including rapes, as well as retaliation against service members who reported those assaults. The Pentagon has implemented a number of programs to combat sexual assault – but the problem has persisted. Carter could be grilled about his views on how sexual assault reports should be handled and what else the Defense Department can do.