The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee has “serious concerns” over the nomination of Colin Kahl, President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Pentagon’s policy shop.
The news comes as the committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing on March 4 for Kahl, according to three congressional aides.
Republican opposition is brewing over Kahl’s involvement in crafting the controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal and other aspects of his record in working on Middle East policy in the Obama administration, five people familiar with the nomination told POLITICO.
“Sen. [Jim] Inhofe is still reviewing Mr. Kahl’s nomination closely and looks forward to hearing from him on these issues in the coming weeks,” a spokesperson for Inhofe said. “He has serious concerns with some of the policy positions that Mr. Kahl has taken in the past.”
The confirmation hearing is only the third for President Joe Biden’s Pentagon nominees, after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. Kahl served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser from 2014 to 2017.
Kahl’s confirmation hearing has been delayed for weeks as the Biden administration works to confirm Cabinet members. Biden’s picks are at the mercy of a 50-50 Senate, meaning one Democratic defection could spell doom if all Republicans oppose a nominee. The nomination of Neera Tanden, for example, Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, is in peril after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin signaled his opposition to the choice.
Austin was easily confirmed two days after Biden’s inauguration in January and the Senate approved Hicks in early February. But Armed Services hasn’t held another confirmation hearing since, and Biden hasn’t formally nominated any more senior Pentagon officials besides Kahl.
But there are signs of growing resistance to Kahl’s nomination in the GOP ranks. Aside from Inhofe’s statement, Republicans have privately criticized Kahl’s promotion of the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which one GOP congressional staffer said helped fund terrorist activities throughout the Middle East. The staffer also noted that Kahl worked on Middle East policy during the Obama administration while the Islamic State gained power in Iraq.
Another person with knowledge of the discussions said the GOP opposition to Kahl is political. The Republicans “want a scalp, and for some reason have picked out Colin,” the person said.
Kahl declined to comment.
During Kahl’s time in the White House, he was a key player in shaping the campaign against the Islamic State, and was a strong advocate of the Iran deal. He later warned that if President Donald Trump walked away from the agreement, as he did in 2018, Iran would ramp up its nuclear activities and regional provocations.
As the Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief from 2009 to 2011, he oversaw a series of military deployments to the Gulf to counter Iranian aggression. In that position, Kahl also helped implement the Iraq drawdown, and worked to strengthen defense ties with Israel. In the summer of 2009, he worked to approve U.S. support for Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system.
It’s unclear how widespread the Republican opposition to Kahl is on the Armed Services Committee and in the wider Senate.
The post of undersecretary for policy is among the most influential in the Pentagon, shaping numerous strategic reviews and policy debate, and is typically among the first posts filled by a new administration.
The Senate confirmed former President Barack Obama’s first pick for the policy post, Michèle Flournoy, in early February 2009. The Trump administration, meanwhile, filled the post on an acting basis for nearly its first year until John Rood was confirmed for the job in January 2018.