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March 11, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Pentagon nominee under fire

By Bill Gertz
The nomination of President Biden‘s former national security adviser to a senior Pentagon post is under fire from Republicans over inflammatory social media postings that have placed the confirmation in jeopardy.

The Biden administration in response has launched a full-court press in lobbying for the Senate confirmation of Colin H. Kahl, nominated for the key policymaking post of undersecretary of defense for policy.

Mr. Kahl, currently with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, was forced to offer multiple explanations for his past statements and policies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 6.

During the hearing, GOP members grilled Mr. Kahl over his tweets accusing Republicans of being part of “ethnic cleansing,” criticizing last year’s drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and backing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which critics say provides Tehran with a pathway to nuclear-tipped missiles.

“Unfortunately, in the past in many cases, your public policy positions have been couched in partisan politics rather than fact-based analysis,” said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Mr. Inhofe was especially critical of Mr. Kahl after the contents of a phone call he had with the nominee leaked and falsely claimed he had “flipped” into backing Mr. Kahl‘s confirmation.

“I’m disappointed that a slanted view of our conversation was shared with the press. There’s no reason for that,” he said.

Republicans focused in on controversial tweets by Mr. Kahl arguing that war with Iran will result from leaving the Iran nuclear deal; that the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf was a sign that the Trump administration was on a path to war; and that the death of Soleimani would trigger a war with Iran.

Mr. Kahl tweeted that the 45 Republican senators who backed military aid to U.S. allies in the Middle East were to blame for what he termed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Mr. Kahl was also faulted for the Obama administration’s failure to recognize the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq while he served in the Pentagon.

President Obama at the time initially dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV” — junior varsity — threat until the al Qaeda offshoot nearly took control of Iraq.

At the Senate hearing, Mr. Kahl appeared to experience what pundits call a “confirmation conversion” — modifying past positions and voicing support for harder-line policies on such issues as the threat from China, U.S. nuclear modernization, and verifiable arms control accords in an apparent bid to win votes from Republicans.

Mr. Kahl told Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, that he had been influenced by anti-Trump politics when he wrote his critical Twitter posts.

“To state the obvious, the last few years have been pretty polarizing on social media,” Mr. Kahl told the committee. “I’m sure there are times that I got swept up in that. I think the language that I used in opposing [President Trump‘s policies] was sometimes disrespectful and, for that, I apologize.

On the drone strike against Gen. Soleimani, Mr. Kahl said he “didn’t shed a tear” and was merely concerned about “escalatory dynamics” in the region after the strike.

Mr. Kahl‘s written answers to questions from the committee indicate that once in the Pentagon he will lean toward liberal policies. For example, Mr. Kahl said top policy priorities will be battling the COVID-19 pandemic and ending extremism in the military ranks.

Mr. Kahl also said major policy prescriptions will be dominated by the issue of global warming.

“Climate change represents another existential challenge — one that will increasingly shape the operational environment and contingencies the Department of Defense will face in the coming years,” he stated.

Mr. Kahl provided the committee with a vague response on whether he supports the nuclear policy announced by China called no-first-use — a declaration that the country will not be the first to resort to nuclear arms in a conflict. The long-held U.S. nuclear posture is called “launch on warning” — firing missiles and launching bombers once incoming strategic weapons are detected.

Successive generals and admirals in charge of the Strategic Command have rejected no-first-use as potentially undermining deterrence.

Asked whether no-first-use would be appropriate for the U.S., Mr. Kahl stated: “I believe the United States should periodically examine its nuclear declaratory policy to ensure it is suitable for the current and foreseeable security environment and supports U.S. strategic objectives.”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters this week that Mr. Kahl “pretty eloquently” defended his past tweets during the hearing.

“I think he made clear his respect for members of Congress of both parties and spoke to his Twitter activity, and I think I’ll leave it there,” Mr. Kirby said.

A key swing vote in the evenly divided Senate will be moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Mr. Manchin this week to lobby personally for Mr. Kahl‘s confirmation.

Mr. Manchin said on Fox News Channel that Mr. Kahl‘s tweets are “concerning” but “nowhere near what Neera Tanden‘s was” — a reference to Mr. Biden’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget director who withdrew under pressure last week for attacking Republicans on Twitter.

“I have reached out to Republicans who he’s worked with and who he’s worked under,” Mr. Manchin said. “I wanted to get everybody’s input. So I’m gathering all that information. I have not made a final decision.”

David Helvey, the acting assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific affairs, suggested in testimony to Congress on Wednesday that the controversial military exchange program with China could be renewed in the Biden administration.

Mr. Helvey, a longtime career official who has promoted military exchanges with China in the past, said one of the Pentagon‘s most far-reaching objectives is “to set the military relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China on a long-term path of transparency and non-aggression.”

“Competition with the People’s Republic of China does not mean confrontation, nor must it lead to conflict,” he stated in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Helvey said maintaining “constructive dialogue” with China is a priority for the Pentagon.

“Our efforts seek to encourage the People’s Republic of China to act in a manner consistent with the free and open international order and adhere to international laws and rules,” he said.

The military exchange program with China, involving visits of officers and ship visits to Chinese ports, has sought for more than two decades to “build trust” between the two militaries but with few results.

Critics say China’s Communist Party-controlled military regards the Pentagon and U.S. military forces as its main enemy, one that should be engaged only to obtain intelligence or technology or to influence policies in support of party objectives. During the 1990s, some of the exchanges provided the People’s Liberation Army with valuable intelligence, including the identity of a key vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to high-tech torpedoes.

After that security breach, Congress passed legislation in 2000 prohibiting any exchanges that would enhance Beijing’s military capabilities.

During the Trump administration, military exchanges were limited by White House guidance requiring all U.S. government exchanges with China to produce tangible results. The directive headed off what many critics said were touchy-feely military contacts that did little to improve relations and more often damaged American security.

The most recent Chinese snub in the military exchange program took place in September 2018, when the Navy amphibious warship USS Wasp was blocked from making a scheduled port visit in Hong Kong.

Military troops and wags in Washington are referring to the extended deployment of National Guard troops on Capitol Hill and the razor-wire and fence perimeter as “Fort Pelosi” — in a bid to shame Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for what they say is her hyping of the extremist threat to the Capitol.

The term has begun circulating widely on Twitter as a hashtag.

The Pentagon defended the deployment of several thousand troops at first as a security force to defend against riots like the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol.

Then the continued presence of the troops was said to be necessary to guard against mass protests that might be held for the Jan. 20 inauguration. None materialized.

A further justification for the deployment of troops and military vehicles on the Capitol grounds was the recent threat related to an anticipated protest by the shadowy QAnon group set for March 4. That too never materialized.

This week, the Pentagon said the troop deployment would be extended into May.

“It’s outrageous because that’s not their function. It’s not their mission,” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week on learning that the National Guard mission would be extended past a March 15 deadline.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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