Ashton Carter easily won confirmation as President Obama’s new Secretary of Defense this afternoon. But that smooth sailing contrasts sharply with the relatively rude congressional greeting given to Obama’s formal request for authority to use military force against ISIS terrorists in the Middle East.
The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved Carter to succeed Chuck Hagel, putting in place a seasoned Pentagon veteran amid mounting military crises across the globe. The final vote was 93 to 5. Five Republicans – Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas, Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho, and Mark Kirk of Illinois – voted no. Earlier, Carter won unanimous approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The confirmation of Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense and an expert on nuclear weapons, as well as Obama’s request for Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), set the stage for what is certain to be months of hearings and debates within Congress and the administration. Many details need to be ironed out on the U.S. strategy aimed at destroying ISIS.
Obama wants the authority to continue U.S-allied airstrikes against ISIS and the military training and supplying of local ground forces for the next three years. But the proposed language would prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operation,” in a gesture to lawmakers wary of being drawn into another lengthy, costly war in the Middle East. The proposed AUMF also contains no geographic limitations on the pursuit of ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq.
While Obama has vowed not to deploy additional U.S. ground troops to go head to head with ISIS forces, his proposed war powers legislation would give him flexibility for dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Those include ground deployment of Special Operations forces to rescue U.S. personnel or to provide other assistance to local forces.
The proposal faced instant roadblocks in both chambers, where many Democrats and some Republicans criticized Obama for not imposing stricter limits on the use of ground troops and leaving open the possibility of the U.S. greatly expanding the battle field throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.
Others fretted that – after six months of airstrikes – the U.S. still hasn’t come up with a winning strategy against the powerful jihadist fighters.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) complained the president's proposal was more restrictive in some ways than existing authority dating back to 2001 and 2002, and that it would "tie his hands even further." Boehner said he'd push to strengthen the provisions to expand the commander-in-chief's authority. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), meanwhile, whose committee will hold hearings on the proposal, said nothing should be done to constrain the president in the war with ISIS, including expanding the use of ground troops. McCain said in a statement he had deep concerns about Obama’s narrow definition of strategy. He called the president’s proposal a “recipe for disaster.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) voiced alarm today at the steady growth of ISIS forces in the past year and the extent of their reach and holdings. He questioned whether the U.S. and its allies are moving fast enough to counter ISIS. “Some pieces are being put together [by the administration] but too slowly,” Royce said at a hearing into the status of the war against ISIS.
“Of a 60-member coalition, 85 percent of all the airstrikes are from U.S. fighter jets,” Royce said. “This air campaign isn’t pummeling the enemy, as it should. It is not intense enough.”
At the same time, many Democrats including Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, complained Obama’s proposed restrictions are too vague and would leave open the chance of real engagement between U.S. troops and ISIS in the coming months.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that ISIS – with its beheadings and killings of Americans, British and Japanese citizens – seems to be doing everything it can to provoke Americans and invite more military action. But he questioned the wisdom of the U.S. getting drawn into another Middle Eastern morass.
“America calls out for the immediate destruction of ISIS,” he said. “I think we’ll see again in these hearings that to achieve that goal it would be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible – and certainly involve tremendous American casualties. We can contain ISIS and work for its eventual destruction and push things in the Middle East to some degree without enormous American casualties.”
“If we think we can remake the Middle East in our own image we are certain to incur American casualties,” he added. “I’m not sure the Middle East will ever be what we want it to be.”
In his confirmation hearings last week, Carter skillfully fielded questions and criticism of Obama’s handling of the war against ISIS and of Russian aggression against Ukraine, essentially backing up Obama on most matters but signaling he’s his own man and would speak up if he disagreed with any policies. Carter also vowed to go after wasteful spending in the Pentagon.
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