The hearing ran nearly seven hours: Here, a look at remarks from Carter, along with their likely subtext:
On Pentagon-White House relations: “I have promised President Obama that if I am confirmed, I will furnish him my most candid strategic advice.”
As Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee noted on Wednesday, previous Obama defense secretaries Robert M Gates and Leon E. Panetta bristled at what they considered micromanagement from the White House. Hagel also is widely believed to have had differences on how to handle the Islamic State threat, which captured international attention under his watch and emerged as a major national security priority.
Carter, in noting that he will offer his “most candid strategic advice,” is acknowledging this history and saying that he wasn’t selected because he’s a patsy to the White House.
On defense spending: “… 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 is casting himself as a reformer, acknowledging that the Pentagon is widely criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike when massive weapons projects like the development of the F-35 fighter jet runs over budget expectations.
He’s also hinting at his earlier work: Carter has long pushed the Defense Department and industry alike to rein in spending after more than a decade at war, while adding that it also was in U.S. interests to keep the defense industry strong and encourage small tech companies to compete with corporate behemoths.
On Afghanistan: “I understand we have a plan. The president has a plan. I support that plan. At the same time, it’s a plan.”
Carter said this in response to a question about whether the United States should alter its military plan for Afghanistan in light of uncertainty over whether the country is secure enough to withstand threats posed by the Taliban and other militant groups.
Carter is hedging his bets here, falling in line behind the White House-approved plan. The Pentagon currently has about 10,600 service members deployed to Afghanistan, and expects to reduce the number even more this year. With that said, he is acknowledging that the existing plan has critics, and he is open to recommending change if he believes the situation warrants it.
On the Islamic State: “A strategy connects ends and means, and our ends with respect to ISIL needs to be its lasting defeat.”
In saying this, Carter is stating an obvious point, while noting that he understands Obama’s current plan to face militants in Iraq and Syria right now and supports it.
McCain pounced on his answer, saying it sounded like a series of goals, not a strategy. Later in the hearing, Carter returned to the issue, saying that the planned training of moderate Syrian rebels is “the beginning of a strategic response.” He added that the United States still needs to address Iranian influence in the region, calling it a “serious complication.”
On the crisis in Ukraine: “I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.”
In this, Carter made news. Ukraine, facing a series of armed fights with Russian-backed separatists on their eastern flank, has requested repeatedly that Washington send it weapons to better defend itself, but the White House has so far declined.
Carter hesitated a bit on the details, saying he had not conferred with current Pentagon leaders or officials in Ukraine. But he said he is inclined “in the direction of providing them” lethal arms.
On women serving in more jobs in combat: “I strongly incline towards opening them all to women, But I am also respectful of the circumstances and of — of professional military judgment in this regard.”
Carter was asked for his take on the Pentagon’s ongoing research into which jobs in combat units women should hold. He held the standard Defense Department line on this one: That he is in favor of opening as many jobs as possible, but is aware that not all commanders believe it is a good idea to have women in their units. They cite concerns ranging from sexual assault to whether women can physically keep up while carrying heavy combat loads.
The issue is especially sensitive in the all-male infantry and Special Operations units. The services have until 2016 to open all jobs in the military or women, or to seek exceptions where they deem it would not be prudent.
On security threats in Europe: “I don’t wish adversity upon anyone, but I hope that what they see around them reminds everyone, you don’t get this stuff for free. Security doesn’t come for free.”
Carter made this remark in response to a question about whether NATO countries are doing enough and spending enough to defend themselves. But he also said he needs to learn more from commanders before he can pass judgment on whether the United States is doing enough to help.
“I know we are doing things,” he said. “We are rotating forces in there to serve as a warning and a tripwire that NATO really is there, and I certainly support doing that, but everything we’re doing I’m probably not aware of. And what more we can do I have not investigated, but I promise, if I am confirmed, I would.”