What’s Right About Ash Carter: Obama’s Next Defense Secretary

What’s Right About Carter: Obama’s Next Defense Secretary

Dec 5, 2014 by Jen DiMascio in Ares

Nearly two years ago when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left the Pentagon, Ashton Carter seemed like an ok, if unexciting replacement. Now, Carter’s nomination for that same job may provide a chance for President Barack Obama to turn his national security team around.

It will not be easy. Carter inherits a defense department waging a limited air campaign in Iraq and Syria, fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and preparing itself for potential future conflicts with China and Russia –- all at a time when Congress continues to be reluctant to increase defense spending.

Plus, memoirs of predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta indicate that White House micromanagement hampered their effectiveness. That also seemed to be the case with Chuck Hagel, noticeably absent from the ceremony. Hagel’s problems may have been deeper, though. He was criticized recently in a devastating foreignpolicy.com piece for laziness, failing to adequately prepare for meetings with senior leaders.

But if both Gates and Panetta were big personalities and longtime Washington stars that threatened to outshine the boss, perhaps Carter is a better match for this administration in which he has worked now for many years behind the scenes.

For Carter’s part, he said at his Dec. 5 nomination ceremony in the Roosevelt room that if confirmed, “I pledge to offer my most candid strategic advice.” The question is whether he will be heard.

Like the president, Carter has a professorial side. Before joining the Obama administration as the Pentagon’s top acquisition official and later its No. 2 civilian, he was chair of the International and Global Affairs faculty at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was also the co-director of the Preventive Defense Project. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and medieval history from Yale University and later was awarded a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University. He was a Rhodes Scholar. So was National Security Advisor Susan Rice, whom Carter gave a warm, post-nomination hug.

Introducing Carter, Obama touted the nominee’s background as a physicist, meaning that Carter is “one of the few who know how our defense systems work,” as well as his innovations in the world of dismantling nuclear weapons –- one of the few national security issues Obama championed from early in his presidency. Obama said that Carter has “never been afraid to cancel old or inefficient weapons systems,” a passing reference to the nominee’s background role in ending General Electric’s attempt to make an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Carter was also new in the job when Gates truncated the purchase of the F-22 Raptor.

Members of Congress are lining up to praise Carter, though his hearing may be an uncomfortable one for the president.

“Carter is a highly competent, experienced, hard-working, and committed public servant,” says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will chair the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015. “I look forward to Dr. Carter’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, which will provide a valuable opportunity to fully ventilate all of issues around this administration’s feckless foreign policy, and its grave consequences for the safety and security of our nation.”

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