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Defense nominee Carter 'inclined' to provide U.S. arms to Ukraine

Ashton B. Carter, President Obama's choice to become his fourth secretary of defense, said Wednesday that he was "very much inclined" to provide arms to Ukraine to fend off Russian-backed rebels, something the White House so far as resisted.

"We need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves," Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing.

In response to a pointed question from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said he would first need to consult with U.S. military leaders and Ukrainian officials before making a specific recommendation about what kind of weapons Washington should send to Kiev. But he left no doubt that he supported the idea.

"I am inclined in the direction of providing them with arms, including .?.?. lethal arms," he said.

The Obama administration has provided night-vision goggles, body armor and other supplies to the Ukrainian government, but has drawn the line at funneling weapons out of fear that they would merely escalate the conflict with the rebels and provoke countermeasures from the Russian government.

Several U.S. military and civilian leaders have been pressing the White House to reconsider in recent weeks as the rebels have continued to make gains and Russian President Vladi-mir Putin has shown no sign of halting Moscow's aggressive intervention in Ukraine.

Carter's unvarnished support for arming Ukraine could help hasten a change in U.S. policy, something that a bipartisan group of lawmakers have said they would welcome.

In his opening remarks Wednesday, Carter said something else not usually heard from the Pentagon: Defense spending is a mess and replete with waste.

"I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be," Carter said. "The taxpayer cannot comprehend it, let alone support the defense budget, when they read ... of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead, and the like. This must stop."

"Every company, state, and city in the country has had to lean itself out in recent years, and it should be no different for the Pentagon," he added.

The tone of Carter's comments on the defense budget contrasts with the doom-laden warnings given last week before the same Senate committee by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They said the armed forces have suffered enough under a few years of relative austerity imposed by Congress and the White House and that the military would struggle to maintain its effectiveness if automatic spending caps are not lifted next year.

Carter pledged that he would be a straight shooter with Obama and would always give him "my most candid strategic advice," a message intended to reassure lawmakers who have criticized the White House for ignoring the counsel of senior civilians and uniformed leaders at the Pentagon.

He also indicated that he would have little patience for micromanaging or improper political interference from above or below, another concern expressed by two former defense secretaries who served under Obama -- Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

"The law also prescribes the chain of command, and if I am confirmed as Secretary of Defense I will be a stickler for the chain of command," Carter said.

Facing no significant opposition on Capitol Hill, Carter is expected to win easy approval from the Senate to become the next secretary of defense. But as he appeared for his confirmation hearing Wednesday, he still prepared for a grilling from lawmakers -- about Obama's national security policies.

Carter, 60, a physicist who previously served as the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, has earned bipartisan words of praise from senators with whom he has met privately in recent weeks. Yet Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have made clear that they intend to press Carter about the wisdom of the White House's strategy for conflict zones including Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.

In his opening remarks, McCain called Carter "an honest, hard-working, and committed public servant" and "one of America's most respected and experienced defense professionals." But since taking over as head of the panel last month, McCain has scheduled several other hearings designed to air a broad critique of the Obama administration's handling of the military and of foreign policy in general.

Having Carter in the witness chair gave McCain and his allies a chance to probe more deeply about potential disagreements between the White House and the Pentagon.

In written responses to questions posed in advance by the Armed Services Committee, Carter was careful to adhere closely to Obama's stated positions. But he also indicated a willingness to keep an open mind on some contentious issues, such as whether U.S. troop deployments to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan might need to be revisited.

On Afghanistan, Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the time he leaves office two years from now, save for a small number assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

That timeline has drawn fire from some lawmakers, who criticize it as too rigid, saying that U.S. troops should stay longer to advise and train Afghan security forces and to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban.

In its formal list of questions, the Armed Services Committee asked Carter whether he would consider recommending to Obama that he change the pace of the Afghanistan withdrawal if security conditions deteriorate over the next two years.

Carter replied with a one-word answer: "Yes."

In response to other questions about that war, Carter said that he was "encouraged by the positive strides made in Afghanistan" but added that "it is clear that much work remains to be done. We must stay engaged with our Afghan partners and support them, as they own the fight."

Lawmakers also are expected to quiz Carter on whether he would consider deploying U.S. Special Operations forces closer to ground combat zones in Iraq and Syria, embedding them with Iraqi units or using them as spotters to call in airstrikes. Obama has resisted such approaches so far, but military commanders have raised the possibility that they might be necessary in the coming months.

Carter did not address his thinking on the subject in his written answers, saying only that he would consult closely with military commanders, civilian advisers and lawmakers before giving any strategic advice to the White House about fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Although Carter is a well-known figure inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill after holding several positions in the Defense Department over the past two decades, he has never been faced with sending troops into combat or having the final word on specific military operations.

He did not serve in the uniformed military but joined the Pentagon in 1981 as a civilian analyst, working on missile defense, the nuclear arsenal and programs to ensure the continuity of government in the event of nuclear war.

Among his jobs, he has previously served as the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer and as deputy defense secretary. He was passed over for the top post in 2013 when it went to former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R). But Hagel eventually fell out of favor with the White House, prompting Obama to nominate Carter after all.

Carter, a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, has taken some hawkish positions in the past. In 2006, he co-wrote an opinion column in The Washington Post in which he advocated a preemptive military strike against North Korea if the country moved to test a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

[Source: By Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post, 04Feb15]

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