No Questions About U.S. Wars in Defense Chief’s Confirmation Hearing

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s newest nominee to lead the Pentagon faced no questions from senators about the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where thousands of American troops are deployed, during a mostly muted confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Instead, Mark T. Esper spent the hourslong hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee largely discussing military challenges from Iran, China and Russia, and defending his record as a lobbyist for a major military contractor.

“I see the big picture,” Mr. Esper told senators.

The startling omission of any questions about the military’s continuing counterinsurgency wars was just the latest sign of the Pentagon’s struggle to balance preparation for future conflicts while focusing on missions where troops are currently fighting and dying.

Ten Americans have been killed this year in combat in Afghanistan. The latest, Sgt. Maj. James G. Sartor, a 40-year-old Green Beret, was killed Saturday in Faryab Province. And this week, American aircraft attacked Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq.

Mr. Esper, who is currently secretary of the Army, also was asked about his willingness to contradict Mr. Trump, as some senators explored the perception that the Pentagon had taken a lesser role in shaping the Trump administration’s national security policy.

“I am concerned that the Defense Department is adrift in a way I have not seen in my whole time on Capitol Hill,” Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in his opening statement. Mr. Reed lamented the number of vacant senior level positions at the Pentagon, calling them “troubling.”

Mr. Esper was a 1986 graduate of West Point, where his classmates included Mike Pompeo, who is now the secretary of state. Mr. Esper served as an Army infantryman in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. He later worked at a conservative think tank and then on Capitol Hill as an adviser to senior Republican senators, including Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who became defense secretary under President Barack Obama.

But it was Mr. Esper’s last job before going to the Pentagon — six years as Raytheon’s top lobbyist in Washington — that drew lawmakers’ ire.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, criticized Mr. Esper for seeking an exception to an ethics obligation, which could allow him to be involved in at least some decisions involving his former employer.

Ms. Warren said the request for an exception “smacks of corruption, plain and simple.”

“The American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not your own financial interests,” Ms. Warren said. “If you can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

Bristling, Mr. Esper defended his ethics.

“I went to war for this country,” he responded. “I served overseas for this country. I stepped down from jobs that paid me well more — well more — than when I was working anywhere else. And each time, it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services.”

Mr. Esper was confirmed as secretary of the Army in November 2017. He was tapped as the acting defense secretary last month, when Patrick M. Shanahan stepped down amid revelations about domestic abuse charges in his family.

The Pentagon has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader for seven months, after the resignation in December of Jim Mattis, Mr. Trump’s first defense secretary. Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, left the role in opposition to the administration’s stance on alliances and its decision to withdraw all American forces from Syria.

Mr. Shanahan was Mr. Mattis’s deputy, and had served as acting defense secretary from December until his own resignation in June.

Mr. Mattis’s legacy hung over much of Tuesday’s hearing, as lawmakers referred to that era in the Pentagon as a measuring stick for what they expected from Mr. Esper.

Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, bluntly asked Mr. Esper if his approach to foreign policy hewed more closely with the president’s or with that of Mr. Mattis. Mr. Esper sidestepped the question.

“I don’t know where to pick between the two,” Mr. Esper said. “But clearly, I share Secretary Mattis’s views, and I’ve expressed that publicly.”

Mr. Esper also addressed Turkey’s purchase of an S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, a move he called “disappointing.” He repeated the Pentagon’s stance that it will stop selling F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if the NATO ally accepts full delivery of the Russian missile systems.

“You can either have the S-400, or you can have the F-35,” Mr. Esper said.