Colin Kahl, President Biden’s pick for the top policy job at the Pentagon, faced tough scrutiny from Republican lawmakers during his confirmation hearing Thursday over previous social media posts criticizing the Trump administration and for his role in crafting the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Kahl, who served as the national security adviser to the vice president during the Obama administration, assured the Senate Armed Services Committee he would remain non-partisan in the role if confirmed and offered his support for nuclear modernization efforts and capability initiatives he said would be required for competition with China.

Colin Kahl, President Biden’s nominee for under secretary of defense for policy. (Photo: Ralph Alswang).

“I understand that the position of the under secretary of defense for policy, while it’s a political appointment, is not a political job. It’s a policy job, one that requires me to be non-partisan in the halls of the Pentagon and bipartisan working with this committee and others in Congress. I know that I can comport myself in that way because I did it the last time I was at the Pentagon working for Secretary Gates. I did it when I was at the Pentagon the first time during the Bush administration. I have a long record of being able to put politics aside in public office and put the national interest first,” Kahl said, referring to his previous stint as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the SASC ranking member, set the tone for the hearing disputing press reports that a recent phone call with Kahl had eased his concerns over the nominee’s role in crafting the Iran Nuclear Deal and his previous opposition to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. 

“On our call I told you I would have a hard time supporting your nomination because of your previous policy positions unless you’ve learned from some of the mistakes that you’ve made,” Inhofe said. “The position of under secretary of defense for policy requires a leader with judicious temperament and sound judgment. In national security it’s too important for partisan politics. Unfortunately, in the past, your public policy positions have been couched in partisan politics rather than fact-based analysis.”

Kahl said he would be a “strong, constructive civilian voice in the department,” where he’d have an empowered role in shaping priorities for competing with China, which he called “the pacing threat in most areas.”

“If confirmed, I would work diligently to further the department’s efforts to strengthen deterrence and develop a joint force to effectively counter a more assertive China,” Kahl said. “The nuclear triad has been a bedrock of our strategic deterrent for decades. In the face of challenges from China, Russia, North Korea and other states, we must ensure that our nuclear deterrent remains safe, reliable and effective. One that is credible, not only in the eyes of our adversaries but in the eyes of our allies.”

On nuclear modernization, more specifically, Kahl said he would only be able to offer his thoughts on programs such as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrence once confirmed, but said all three legs of the triad are critical to maintaining deterrence.

“My position is that all three legs of the [nuclear] triad need to remain viable. What that requires is something that will require me to dig into the details of the current modernization efforts,” Kahl said. 

Regarding the U.S.’ relationship with Israel, Kahl added the Pentagon must continue to partner on capability advancements particularly in the area of missile defense.

“I also think the U.S.-Israeli defense relationship has so many benefits because Israel remains at the cutting edge in developing things like Iron Dome and David’s Sling and the Arrow system in missile defense. And there’s a two-way street that our defense and technological cooperation with Israel not only benefits Israel’s security but benefits our security,” Kahl said. 

Several GOP members on the panel referenced Kahl’s tweets and cited how the most recent nominee for under secretary of defense for policy, Ret. Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, had to withdraw from consideration over his past incendiary, anti-Muslim comments (Defense Daily, Aug. 3 2020). 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) cited previous tweets from Kahl where he said the GOP had “debased itself at the altar of Trump” and that the Republican party had a “death cult fealty” to the former president, adding he would oppose his nomination. 

“I appreciate your candor, senator. To state the obvious, the last few years have been pretty polarizing on social media. I’m sure there are times that I got swept up in that. There were a number of positions that President Trump took that I strongly opposed. I think the language that I used in opposing those was sometimes disrespectful and for that I apologize,” Kahl said. 

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) came to Kahl’s defense over Republicans on the panel’s decision to focus on tweets aimed at criticizing the previous administration.

“That kind of criticism regarding Tweets from folks who didn’t say anything about the kind of lying racist tweets out of the former President [Trump] I think is pretty rich,” Hirono said.