National Security

Obama makes it official: Ashton Carter picked as Pentagon chief. Now what?

Ashton Carter speaks after President Barack Obama nominated him to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on Dec. 5, 2014.
Ashton Carter speaks after President Barack Obama nominated him to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on Dec. 5, 2014. TNS

How much difference can Ashton Carter make to the Obama administration’s national security policy?

President Barack Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, if confirmed, will arrive at the Pentagon commanding nearly universal respect from the defense establishment as an intellectual and effective budget manager. But it’s an open question what effect even a longtime respected defense leader can have on a national security process that has been criticized as dysfunctional and micromanaged out of the White House.

The strains between the Pentagon and the White House, amid a shrinking defense budget and a war against the Islamic State, even crept into Obama’s announcement of Carter as his pick. Both Carter and the president made veiled references to them. And outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided at the last minute not to attend the unveiling Friday morning in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

“If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice,” Carter said. “And I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice.”

Because he spent the bulk of his career working on budgetary issues, there is a presumption that Carter can easily address the threat of sequestration, the automatic cuts to the defense budget that Congress set in motion two years ago. Carter, 60, spent years in the Pentagon under two presidents and worked in a variety of posts under 11 defense chiefs. He served as deputy defense secretary and undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. In that last post, he streamlined a contracting process that had exploded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But whether he can shape policy remains unclear. He earned his doctorate in theoretical physics at Oxford but emerged as a defense thinker, not a scientist. Since October 1975, Carter has published 130 major articles or books, according to Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Where his pieces once were titled “Quarks, Charm and the Psi Particle,” his later works were on topics such as terrorism. Some were prescient.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Carter wrote repeatedly that because the U.S. military has the world’s best conventional forces, U.S. foes were developing unconventional means of attack. In an article that appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1998, Carter and his co-authors, John Deutsch and Philip Zelikow, foresaw a U.S. government ill prepared to deal with the threat of terrorism.

“The United States needs a new institution to gather intelligence on catastrophic terrorism – a National Terrorism Intelligence Center – that would collect and analyze information so it could warn of suspected catastrophic terrorist acts ahead of time,” they wrote. Something similar to that emerged after the 9/11 attacks, the National Counterterrorism Center, which was created in 2004.

In his writings, Carter also tackled issues as varied as the budget, nuclear proliferation, Iran and China.

But as deputy secretary of defense, he did not seem to be inside the loop on policy issues. He was surprised, for example, by the president’s decision in the summer of 2013 not to carry out strikes against Syria amid suggestions it had used chemical weapons against civilians, which the administration had called a red line.

A scientist with a fine eye for detail, Carter will confront a national security policy that has, at times, lacked specificity and clarity. Given that, it is unclear how his approach will work inside the long-serving national security team inside the White House. As deputy defense secretary, he had an almost insatiable appetite for details and had little patience for those who could not answer his questions, say those who worked for him. That is a big departure from Hagel, who reportedly asked very little.

But for all his experience, Carter, unlike his predecessor, will be an outsider. Obama knew Hagel as a fellow senator before moving to the White House, and Hagel advised Obama on foreign affairs and national security issues during his 2008 presidential bid.

If confirmed, Carter would become Obama’s fourth Pentagon chief. The last president to have four secretaries of defense was Harry S. Truman, who was president when the Cabinet position was created under the National Security Act of 1947.

“I hope that Dr. Carter fully understands that – as previous secretaries of defense have strongly attested – he will likely have limited influence over the tight circle around the president who apparently controls the entire strategic decision-making process,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said. “These are serious challenges which will face the next leader of the Department of Defense, piled on top of the myriad challenges confronting American military readiness here at home and our nation’s security across the world.”

Those who have worked with him at the Pentagon said that Carter’s appetite for details will allow him to build a case and challenge policy where he sees fit.

“I think the simple fact is a strong defense secretary is going to have an impact. A lot of the business of defense is about high-risk, highly uncertain things,” said Vikram Singh, who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia during Carter’s tenure as deputy defense secretary. “And he operates well in that environment. He has always been a straight shooter and a master of detail.”

The biggest question remains not whether Carter will have something to say about policy, but whether the White House will listen. Obama administration officials said they would welcome Carter’s assessment, even if it contradicts White House thinking.

“His strategic thinking will be very valuable as we consider the range of threats that are facing this country,” said Josh Earnest, White House spokesman.

But Obama has said that before. Upon nominating Hagel in January 2013, Obama said he relied on the now outgoing defense secretary’s thinking and recommendations.

“In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind – even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. And that’s exactly the spirit I want on my national security team,” Obama said then.

Obama’s comments on Carter sounded similar. “He was at the table in the Situation Room; he was by my side navigating complex security challenges that we were confronting,” Obama said of Carter’s tenure as deputy defense secretary. “I relied on his expertise, and I relied on his judgment.”