National Security

Obama’s new defense chief may be hobbled by bumbled selection process

Ashton Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013.
Ashton Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013. AP

The transition of power at the Pentagon this week under President Barack Obama has not made anyone look good.

News reports earlier in the week said Ashton Carter, a former deputy defense secretary, would be the next secretary of defense. But the White House had not completed its vetting process before his name was floated Tuesday after at least three potential candidates publicly announced they did not want the job.

That makes Carter look like the last choice – if he is indeed the choice when Obama announces his nominee Friday morning at the White House. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described Carter this week as “the last man standing.”

The resignation of his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, nearly two weeks ago reportedly came after more than a month of conversations amid White House unhappiness with his performance. Yet the administration didn’t have a candidate lined up to replace him in one of the administration’s top jobs, as the Carter news stories make clear.

Now there’s fear that the poorly handled transition portends two more years of a weakened defense chief as the Pentagon confronts a nuanced, messy war in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression, Middle East violence and continuing budget cuts.

“I think it is unfair to the individuals and it makes it more difficult for either person to be an effective secretary,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal group with close ties to the Obama administration. “Hagel is going to be in office for at least another month. And Carter will not come in with the gravitas other people have had, given that he is the default choice.”

The White House declined to comment on its handling of the changes at the Pentagon or even if Carter is Obama’s choice. “The president will announce for himself who his nominee is,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

In a briefing with reporters to discuss a report on sexual assault, Hagel gave a long answer about the reasons for his departure but declined to offer any specifics. Rather, he repeatedly said he felt “it was probably the right time for a new team” and that there was no specific issue or conflict that led to his resignation.

“I think the country is best served with new leadership,” he said.

Presidents frequently face the departure of Cabinet secretaries under tense circumstances. But most of the time they have a replacement lined up.

In April, when Kathleen Sebelius said she would resign as secretary of health and human services after a stormy tenure, Obama announced her replacement, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the next day.

This time, however, Obama remained silent as a trio of possible candidates – Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson – all publicly announced that they didn’t want the job.

It’s possible that none was under serious consideration or that they didn’t want to serve in a president’s final two years in office. Either way, the announcements proved embarrassing to the White House.

“Clearly it’s been handled very poorly,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense and ambassador who now serves as a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a national security research institute. “They should have someone teed up. It all contributes to a perception and sense of disarray. . . . It’s not like secretaries of defense haven’t been fired and changed.”

Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all replaced their defense secretaries promptly, Edelman said.

After Carter’s name appeared in news reports, Earnest praised him, saying Carter had served “very, very ably” as deputy secretary of defense and noting that the Senate had confirmed him in that post unanimously. Still, Earnest declined to say Carter’s been selected.

“This is an indication that he fulfills some of the criteria that we’ve discussed in the past,” Earnest said. “He’s somebody that certainly deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government. He is somebody that does have detailed understanding of the way that the Department of Defense works.”

Delay isn’t a new strategy for Obama.

Last month, he scrambled to name his nominee for attorney general after news leaked that Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, would get the job. The announcement, six weeks after Attorney General Eric Holder revealed that he would leave, ended up being on a Saturday after Earnest admitted that extensive news reports “pushed this issue, a decision was sort of forced.”

But the circumstances surrounding Hagel’s replacement come with additional problems.

A Twitter account claiming to be Carter appeared to confirm the news Tuesday, tweeting that he had received a phone call from Obama telling him he was the president’s nominee. An Italian journalist later admitted it was a hoax.

The situation has only made the already tough situation at the Pentagon worse.

Obama has been criticized there for micromanaging national security matters. Hagel’s two predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both complained about White House interference in books they wrote after leaving office. Earnest confirmed tensions with the Pentagon, though he called it “not unique” to this White House.

Besides appearances, there are practical complications to the transition. By the time Carter would arrive early next year, if he’s nominated, the budget, which will dictate how he can both manage the department and carry out policy, already will have been formulated without his input – undercutting what many say is his major strength for the job, a detailed understanding of the military’s massive spending plan.

Carter, 60, is what Pentagon insiders call an “acquisitions guy.” He spent years in the Pentagon through two administrations, serving as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013. Before that, he was undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics for two years.

He has considerable Pentagon experience, working in a variety of posts under 11 defense chiefs, and is unlikely to draw significant opposition in the Senate, which would consider his nomination. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for both the No. 2 and No. 3. Pentagon positions.

Charles Dunlap Jr., executive director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, who retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a major general, said it’s curious the White House didn’t arrange for a smoother transition. But Dunlap said Carter has such a good reputation in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that he should be able to lead effectively.

“It is a little troubling the process seemed to be so poorly planned,” he said. “But Carter is a good fit. I think the administration is going to land on its feet.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version had an incorrect time element for the Loretta Lynch announcement.

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