Obama’s New Defense Chief Is Brilliant, but Is He a Smart Choice?
Policy + Politics

Obama’s New Defense Chief Is Brilliant, but Is He a Smart Choice?

REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

A day after the news that President Obama will choose Ashton B. Carter as the next defense secretary, here’s the early word on how well he will perform as the replacement for the departing Chuck Hagel: 

Carter will make the trains run on time at the Pentagon and he can crunch budget numbers with the best of them. The former deputy defense secretary served under both Leon Panetta and Hagel, and he will bring a wealth of experience back to the Pentagon. 

But the former Number 2, a trained physicist and academic, may have trouble inspiring the troops at a pivotal moment in the U.S war against ISIS and other terrorists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. And it’s far from clear whether he will do any better than Hagel in penetrating the inner sanctum of Obama’s national security advisers. 

The next Secretary of Defense will take over at a time of intense debate over the Pentagon’s $526.6 billion annual budget and the $79.4 billion the administration has requested for the Overseas Contingency Operations Account, which funds military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will also be expected to articulate and defend the administration’s defense and foreign policy positions.

Related: Obama Settles on Ashton Carter as Pentagon Chief 

Carter, 60, is little known outside of Washington and academic circles and would bring a wide range of experience to a department confronting mounting crises in the Middle East. Unlike Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War-era Army veteran, Carter never served in the uniformed military. But among policy makers and politicians, he is known for his keen intellect and vast experience evaluating and purchasing costly weapons system and overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

The one-time Rhodes Scholar received a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University and holds degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale. He is a long-time faculty member at Harvard and began lecturing at Stanford this fall. Carter was passed over by Obama nearly two years ago when the president turned instead to Hagel, a friend from their days together in the Senate. 

Based on early reports, here are five takeaways from the president’s choice:

Related: Hagel Departure Leaves Obama with Lame Duck on Defense   

  • Carter will skate to confirmation, but not before being used as the foil for GOP criticism of Obama’s defense posture. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the incoming chair of the Armed Services Committee, and other key lawmakers say the nomination, per se, is “non-controversial,” in part because Carter has previously won Senate confirmation. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who was among Hagel’s main adversaries during the Nebraskan’s brutal confirmation hearings, says he doesn’t know of a single Republican who might challenge Carter for the post. But McCain, Inhofe and others will unload on Carter in airing their grievances with Obama’s strategy in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran over their nuclear enrichment program and standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
  • He will be the quintessential inside-the-building guy, peerless in his mastery of the budget and weapons systems. He first joined the Defense Department in 1981 as a civilian analyst, and some of his early assignments included assessing MX missile systems and other sophisticated weaponry. Later, as the second in command at the Pentagon between 2011 and 2013, Carter managed a $600 billion annual budget and two million uniformed and civilian workers during an era of retrenchment and cutbacks. That experience will be highly important now as the Pentagon tries to persuade Congress to end sequestration and pour more money into defense.
  • They will love him in the defense industry because of his understanding and appreciation of complex and costly weapons systems — and because he can talk their talk. Industry experts and former Pentagon hands say that Carter, when teamed with deputy secretary Robert Work and Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall, will provide important continuity to the department. They also appreciate the fact that he is steeped in business acquisition and budget issues.

Related: The Real Reason Hagel Resigned As Defense Secretary    

With no uniformed military experience to point to, Carter may have trouble winning the hearts of the rank and file military. Although Carter has spent much of his professional life around the military and the Pentagon, The Washington Post noted, his claim to fame is being a sophisticated technocrat — and not an inspirational leader who has led troops in combat. 

  • He’s not likely to be able to penetrate the Obama inner circle of national security advisers including Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Denis McDonough and others. The White House team is highly insular and often operates independently of top leaders at the Defense and State Departments. However, Carter probably will command more respect from the White House than Hagel, who reportedly never mastered the arcana of dense data and often seemed unprepared to articulate the administration line. 

McCain told reporters yesterday that regardless of Carter’s qualifications for the job, the next defense secretary would largely be a figurehead beholden to the commander in chief. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s strong or weak, he’s excluded from the major decision making process, which is handled by a handful of people who’ve never heard a shot fired,” McCain told reporters at the Capitol, according to Defense One

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