Series Of Articles On SecDef Nominee Ash Carter

In Ashton Carter, Nominee for Defense Secretary, a Change in Direction


Play Video|1:30

Obama Nominates Carter for Defense

President Obama on Friday announced his nomination of Ashton B. Carter, a physicist and former deputy defense secretary, to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

Video by Reuters on Publish Date December 5, 2014. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

WASHINGTON — Ashton B. Carter, the physicist nominated by President Obama on Friday to lead the Pentagon, is in the mold of past cabinet secretaries who have tangled with the White House and may advocate a stronger use of American power overseas.

Assertive and intellectual, Mr. Carter, 60, is in many ways the flip side of Chuck Hagel, the current defense secretary, who was seen as passive and who submitted his resignation under pressure last week. Mr. Carter is more like Robert M. Gates, Mr. Obama’s first defense secretary, who stood up to the White House. The two men are in close touch, and both have a jaundiced view of Washington.

While Mr. Carter very much wanted the top Pentagon job — he was passed over for it two years ago — he once compared working in Washington to “being a Christian in the Coliseum. You never know when they are going to release the lions and have you torn apart for the amusement of onlookers.”

Ashton B. Carter, a physicist and the Pentagon’s former chief weapons buyer, is said to have been selected to be the next defense secretary.

Obama Is Said to Pick Ashton Carter, Physicist and Ex-Deputy, as Defense Secretary DEC. 2, 2014

Mr. Hagel had been expected to appear alongside Mr. Carter, his former deputy, at the White House announcement on Friday, but he was a surprise no-show and instead issued a statement that it was Mr. Carter’s day. His absence reflected his chilly relations with members of Mr. Obama’s national security staff, who described him as largely silent during cabinet meetings, although he also irritated them when he sent a memo to Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, questioning the administration’s Syria policy.


Ashton B. Carter, President Obama’s choice to lead the Pentagon, at the White House announcement ceremony on Friday. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
“Ash is rightly regarded as one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders,” Mr. Obama said in announcing Mr. Carter’s nomination in the Roosevelt Room, which was filled with the mandarins of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. “He was at the table in the Situation Room, he was by my side in navigating complex security challenges.”

Mr. Obama paid tribute to Mr. Carter’s record of innovation as a previous top Pentagon official, notably his role in developing and accelerating the shipment of mine-resistant vehicles to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s no exaggeration to say there are countless Americans who are alive today, in part because of Ash’s efforts,” Mr. Obama said. Mr. Carter, who stood next to Mr. Obama, pledged to “keep faith” with what he called “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.”

After the ceremony, Mr. Carter and Ms. Rice shared a lengthy bear hug.

Despite the display of affection, managing his relationship with Ms. Rice may well be the toughest part of Mr. Carter’s new job. Unlike Mr. Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, Mr. Carter comes to the job with a deep knowledge of a department with a $600 billion annual budget and more than two million uniformed and civilian employees. He worked in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, returned as the chief weapons buyer under Mr. Gates and then rose to deputy defense secretary, the No. 2 position. He would face virtually no learning curve.

Less certain is whether Mr. Carter, a longtime policy expert and sometime academic, would bring the political skills necessary both for penetrating Mr. Obama’s insular inner circle and for balancing the president’s national security agenda against that of a Republican-led Congress.

Mr. Carter is a Democrat but not one of the core Obama loyalists, a group that includes Ms. Rice and Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff. Like Mr. Gates, Mr. Carter is widely viewed as being to the right of the president on issues like American policy in Syria and the pace of releasing prisoners from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Both are issues in which he could come into conflict with Ms. Rice.

Mr. Carter is methodical and sharp, but not necessarily patient. Mr. Obama’s apparent willingness to wait years for the Syrian civil war to play out may frustrate Mr. Carter, who former colleagues say often pushed for clarity in policy goals — and then moved swiftly to pursue those goals.

“I would not call him a hawk,” said William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton and one of Mr. Carter’s mentors. “But he is pretty hard-nosed about what can be done with American power, and he is willing to use it when appropriate.”

Vikram J. Singh, who worked under Mr. Carter when the latter was deputy defense secretary, agreed with that assessment. “Ash Carter will probably be very cleareyed about looking at the risk of a set of options, and accepting a certain amount of risk, and moving forward to implement as efficiently and quickly as possible.”

Play Video|1:33

From Particle Physics to the Pentagon

Ashton B. Carter, a theoretical physicist and former deputy defense secretary, is President Obama’s choice to be the next defense secretary.

Video by Natalia V. Osipova on Publish Date December 2, 2014. Photo by Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times.

If Mr. Carter ends up to the right of Mr. Obama on Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, it will not be the first time. Former aides and administration officials say that Mr. Carter — like Mr. Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry — was shocked last year when Mr. Obama, after a walk and talk on the South Lawn of the White House with Mr. McDonough, decided at the last moment to call off military strikes against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who had charged across Mr. Obama’s own “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.

Now, Mr. Carter will inherit a military strategy that has made some progress in reversing the gains of the Islamic State in Iraq, but has made dealing with Mr. Assad a less important issue. Despite public shows of solidarity, the United States and its partners cannot agree whether their primary enemy in Syria is the Sunni militant group or Mr. Assad.

Mr. Carter must also deal with an era of mandatory across-the-board cuts in military spending. “The biggest issue right now is the budget,” said Jeremy B. Bash, a former chief of staff to Leon Panetta, another Obama defense secretary, who is advising Mr. Carter on his nomination.

Mr. Carter is expected to have smooth confirmation hearings from Senate Republicans, who say they foresee no opposition to him.

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Carter studied medieval history at Yale and earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. In a 2013 interview, he recalled spending time on “charmed quarks and also the Higgs boson” elementary particle. But then he developed a fascination with defense policy so strong he never pursued a career as a physicist.

“In Ash you have a poster child for the guy who discovers that science and technology are the major drivers for some of the most important events in international affairs, and sometimes are the sources of the solutions,” said Graham Allison, who recruited Mr. Carter in the early 1980s to come to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Here was a guy with a physics background who was fascinated by ballistic missile defense.

Mr. Carter spent the better part of the next quarter-century at the Belfer Center, though he took a leave during the Clinton administration to work for Mr. Perry, a like-minded mathematician and engineer who became defense secretary at a critical moment, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He quickly became a central player in the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, when the country threw out international inspectors and began what turned out to be a long and successful drive to develop a small nuclear arsenal.

“It may have been the closest we came to conflict with North Korea since the end of the Korean War,” Mr. Carter once said.

When Mr. Carter was deputy defense secretary, congressional aides recall numerous hearings when Mr. Carter, testifying alongside military commanders and even his bosses, inserted his own answers to questions not directed at him, to make sure he got his point across.

“He is not somebody who can simply be counted on,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He will say what he thinks.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 6, 2014, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: In Nominee for Defense, a Change in Direction. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Out Cheneying-Cheney: Obama’s Likely Defense Pick Once Backed Pre-emptive Attack on North Korea

How the Pentagon Papers Came to be Published By the Beacon Press Told by Daniel Ellsberg & Others

Armed Services Hearing

Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a member of the Abolition 2000 coordinating committee.

Feb 15, 2012 | Story

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

President Obama is reportedly preparing to nominate former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to replace ousted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. A trained physicist, Carter has a long history at the Pentagon, where he once served as the chief arms buyer. In 2006, he made headlines when he backed a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if the country continued with plans to conduct a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. He co-wrote a piece headlined “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy.” We speak to Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a member of the Abolition 2000 coordinating committee.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with the man first in line to be the next secretary of defense. Obama administration officials have said Ashton Carter heads the White House shortlist to replace outgoing Chuck Hagel. On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest responded to questions about the nominee.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: Mr. Carter is obviously somebody who has generated a lot of headlines today. He is somebody who has previously served the administration as the deputy secretary of defense, a position that he filled very, very ably. He was confirmed by the United States Senate into that position in September of 2011 with—by unanimous consent. So this is an indication that he fulfills some of the criteria that we’ve discussed in the past. He’s somebody that certainly deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his—for his previous service in government. He is somebody that does have a detailed understanding of the way that the Department of Defense works.

AMY GOODMAN: An announcement will come after the official vetting process is complete, but Carter is said to be the only candidate left after two others withdrew from consideration. His appointment will require approval from the Republican-led Senate. Chuck Hagel was pushed out last week amidst reported differences with the administration’s military campaign in Iraq and Syria. A trained physicist, Carter has a long history at the Pentagon, where he served as the chief arms buyer. He was also assistant secretary of defense under former President Bill Clinton and deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013.
To find out more about Ashton Carter, we go to Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a member of the Abolition 2000 coordinating committee.

You’re deeply concerned about Ashton Carter being named secretary of defense.



ALICE SLATER: Because it’s business as usual. I mean, it’s the perpetuation of what Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex. This is somebody that has rotated inside and outside of industry. He’s advised Goldman Sachs and other business companies on what kind of military equipment, you know, they shouldn’t be manufacturing, and they’ve been doing deals for years. And he was brought in because Hagel was kind of like—well, not exactly the peace movement, but they were going to ratchet down dumb wars, anyway, which is what Obama said. And now it looks like we’re just expanding the whole war machine. And he’s a perfect candidate for this. I mean, it’s really pathetic, because he actually wrote an op-ed that we should be bombing North Korea’s nuclear power plant. And—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go to that, actually, that op-ed. In 2006, in a Washington Post op-ed, written with former Defense Secretary William Perry, Ashton Carter urged the Bush administration to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if the country continued with plans to conduct a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. In the piece headlined, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy,” Perry and Carter wrote, quote, “Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not.” They went on to say, quote, “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.”

ALICE SLATER: And actually, Cheney criticized them. The peaceful Cheney said they had gone too far. That’s where we’re at now. It’s the same gang. I mean, I’m particularly upset with Ashton Carter because I’m so familiar with the whole nuclear disarmament process, or re-armament process, I should say. Right now our government is planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years for new bomb factories, delivery systems, missiles, submarines, airplanes and new nuclear weapons. And he has been part of the push, particularly starting when Clinton, President Clinton, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1993, which we had been working for all our adult lives. They had this little kicker that they allowed laboratory tests and subcritical tests. What’s a subcritical test? They’re blowing up plutonium at the test site a thousand feet below the desert floor—they’ve done 26 of them—with high explosives, but it doesn’t have a—


ALICE SLATER: In Nevada, at the Nevada test site. And because it doesn’t have a chain reaction, Clinton said, “That’s not a test. We can do this.” Like “I didn’t inhale, I didn’t have sex, and I’m not doing nuclear testing.” And that’s why India tested, because India objected, after the test ban was signed, to the technical laboratory tests and the subcritical tests and said, “If you don’t preclude that in the test ban,” which Carter was advising at that time, “we’re not going to sign it.” And then India went and developed their weapons. And—

AMY GOODMAN: He advised Clinton on deploying a missile shield in Alaska?

ALICE SLATER: Well, he was talking to him that it would be OK, you know, that it didn’t violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That was his advice. Well, Russia disagreed. And then Clinton started the big—the infrastructure for these missile—the expansion of the missiles. We had a treaty since 1972 with Russia, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In order to stop the missile race, we wouldn’t build anti-missiles, so we wouldn’t need so many missiles. And Bush actually walked out of the treaty. That wasn’t Carter, but they started the inroads. And now we have missiles in Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia—not Yugoslavia, Turkey. We took missiles out of Turkey. Kennedy took missiles out of Turkey in order to get the Soviets out of Cuba, and now we’ve got them back in there. And everybody’s saying Putin’s a bad guy; meanwhile, we’re pushing them right up against the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alice Slater, I want to thank you for being with us, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. She is headed to Vienna for the conference, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN. To see our conversation in Vienna a few weeks ago about this conference, you can go to

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