The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve Ashton Carter, a former senior Pentagon official and Harvard professor, as President Obama’s fourth secretary of Defense.
Carter, who will be sworn in next week, is a well-respected technocrat who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The 93-5 vote in the full Senate followed a unanimous vote of support earlier this week from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Carter, 60, will take over the Pentagon as it steps up airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, as officials consider slowing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and as the department faces a new round of mandatory spending cuts. The military also is trying to shift more forces to Asia and the western Pacific.
Obama praised Carter, who will replace Chuck Hagel. “With his decades of experience, Ash will help keep our military strong as we continue the fight against terrorist networks, modernize our alliances, and invest in new capabilities to keep our armed forces prepared for long-term threats,” Obama said in a statement.
Carter’s sail through the nomination process stands in stark contrast to Hagel’s two years ago. The former Republican senator from Nebraska saw his confirmation vote delayed in Congress for nearly two weeks after he stumbled in his confirmation hearings.
Hagel announced on Nov. 24 his plans to resign after a rocky tenure and tensions with the White House and Congress. He has not disclosed his plans after he leaves the Pentagon.
During his confirmation hearing last week, Carter decried the “malignant and savage terrorism” of Islamic State, warned of Iran’s expanding influence across the Middle East and called for an end to the congressionally mandated budget caps known as “sequestration.”
Carter also said he was “very much inclined” to provide weapons and ammunition to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, signaling a possible shift in administration policy.
At a news conference Monday, Obama said for the first time that he is considering supplying arms to Ukraine. But he said he had not made a decision and listed reasons why he might oppose deepening the U.S. involvement.
The issue may be moot if a cease-fire deal announced Thursday in Minsk by leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France leads to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The cease-fire, and a withdrawal of heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, is scheduled to begin Sunday.
Carter’s immediate focus at the Pentagon will be the effort to degrade and defeat Islamic State militants. On Wednesday, Obama formally asked Congress for authority to permit ongoing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and U.S. military training for local ground forces, for the next three years. His proposal would bar “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Carter first joined the Pentagon in 1981 as a technical analyst. A decade later, President Clinton named him assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy, where he worked to ensure that the former Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile did not fall into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.
Carter left the Pentagon in 1996. He returned in 2009 to serve in the department’s No. 3 slot as the chief weapons buyer, including the $400-billion, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. He was promoted to deputy secretary in 2011 but left again after Obama picked Hagel to succeed Leon E. Panetta.