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What does White House want from next Defense secretary? Clues at hearing. (+video)

The Defense secretary's focus has been on a host of new challenges, including the rise of the Islamic State. At his confirmation hearing Wednesday, nominee Ashton Carter offered insight into his priorities.

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Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s choice to be defense secretary, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 4, before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the panels considers his nomination to replace Chuck Hagel as Pentagon chief.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he was stepping down last year, there was a great deal of speculation about what, precisely, the White House wanted from its new nominee, Ashton Carter.

The Defense secretary’s focus has had to shift to a host of new challenges in the past year: the rise of the Islamic State, Russian aggression in Crimea, and a need to better train security forces in Iraq.

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There are, too, the ongoing issues of cyberwarfare, the Pentagon’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific, missile defense, and nuclear command and control.

With all these balls in the air, Dr. Carter offered some insights into his priorities –and, in turn, those of the White House – at his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. If confirmed, which is all but guaranteed, he will be the fourth person to hold the job during the Obama administration.

Indeed, much has changed since Mr. Hagel was sworn in two years ago. He was brought onboard to manage a shrinking budget and the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. As the overall force levels went down, his experience as a Vietnam soldier who has been active in issues of veterans’ care was considered invaluable.

Now, the rise of the Islamic State is at the top of Carter’s to-do list. Hagel’s differences with the White House on this matter were widely known. In October, he wrote a letter to President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, taking some exception to US policy toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In particular, at issue was the White House’s “Iraq first” policy, which dictated that before overthrowing Mr. Assad – the stated goal of many rebel groups – the groups must first defeat the Islamic State.

GOP lawmakers seized on Hagel’s memo as “welcome news to those of us who have harbored these thoughts for some time,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina put it at the time. “It’s clear to me Secretary Hagel realizes our failures in Syria have also greatly contributed to destabilization in Iraq and a more robust response is required.”

Carter’s response to GOP questions about America’s way forward against the Islamic State was one of the few sources of contention in the otherwise amiable hearing Wednesday.

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After he indicated support for the administration’s approach to Syria and Assad, committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona admonished, “I hope you will rethink your answer.”

Training young “moderate” Syrians, only to send them back to be “bombed” by Assad, is “idiocy,” Senator McCain said. 

While the choice of Carter as Defense secretary may have appealed to the White House in large part because of his budgetary and bureaucratic savvy, in addition to his apparent willingness to toe the party line, Carter has indicated that he will be his own thinker, too. 

Even as the White House grapples with whether to arm Ukrainian fighters against Russian-backed separatists, Carter told lawmakers that he is “very much inclined in that direction.”

Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine wondered aloud about the danger of Russian President Vladimir Putin matching those arms and escalating the conflict.

“You raise an excellent question,” Carter said. “In these international problems, you always have to ask yourself not what’s the next step, but what’s the step after that.”

It is anticipating those steps “after that” that will be Carter’s greatest challenge of all.