President Obama’s pick to be the next defense secretary on Wednesday assured senators reviewing his nomination that he will be an independent voice inside the administration, even going as far as to suggest his perspective differs from the White House on such critical issues as Guantanamo Bay, Ukraine and putting soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ashton Carter’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee provoked an immediate response from the White House, where the chief presidential spokesman Joshua Ernest cautioned that Mr. Obama, and not Mr. Carter, sets policy.
“A decision like this will be made by the commander in chief,” Mr. Earnest retorted when questioned about Mr. Carter’s testimony about arming Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Two of Mr. Obama’s prior defense chiefs, Robert Gates and outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel, have publicly chafed at what they said was White House micromanagement of the Pentagon.
Mr. Carter is popular in the Senate and his nomination is all but assured. Republican senators on the committee used Wednesday’s confirmation hearing as a forum to air their grievances on foreign policy, pressing Mr. Carter on how he plans to remain independent. He immediately took the challenge.
Mr. Carter said he favors sending arms to Ukraine in the fight against Russian separatists, something his soon-to-be-boss has resisted.
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“I very much incline in that direction,” he said. “…We need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.”
Mr. Carter didn’t specify the weapons to be considered but said, “I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.”
At the White House, Mr. Earnest was peppered with questions and tried put a positive face on a new defense secretary who in unafraid to express his opinions publicly.
Mr. Carter is “a strong believer in the chain of command,” the press spokesman said.
Mr. Carter also assured lawmakers he would not allow the White House to bully him into rapidly closing the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just day ago he said he believed Mr. Obama’s goal of closing Gitmo was unrealistic, even though he supports it.
“Two of your predecessors, Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta, have severely criticized White House micromanagement of the Defense Department and over-centralization of foreign and defense policy,” said Sen. John. McCain, the chairman of the committee and an Arizona Republican. “According to numerous news reports, Secretary Hagel experienced similar frustrations with the insular and indecisive White House national security team over issues ranging from [Islamic State] to Ukraine, detention policy to sequestration.”
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Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed Mr. McCain’s concerns and took them a step further.
“Make a commitment to this committee that you will not succumb to any pressure by this administration to increase the transfers of Guantanamo,” the New Hampshire Republican said.
“Absolutely,” Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Obama vowed in 2009 to review the detainees being kept at the facility and determine whether they should be transferred, released or prosecuted. In January, the military released five Yemeni detainees and sent them to Oman and Estonia. The release of those detainees decreased the population at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility from a one-time high of 779 to 122 detainees.