Obama names Ashton Carter as next defense secretary
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Obama names Ashton Carter as next defense secretary

Hagel’s nominated successor seen as loud proponent of a tougher stance on Iran, quiet supporter of Israel

US President Barack Obama (left) and Vice President Joseph Biden (right) with Ashton Carter (center) after nominating him for secretary of defense at the White House on December 5, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
US President Barack Obama (left) and Vice President Joseph Biden (right) with Ashton Carter (center) after nominating him for secretary of defense at the White House on December 5, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama on Friday nominated former Pentagon deputy chief Ashton Carter to be his new defense secretary, heralding him as one the nation’s “foremost national security leaders.”

Obama announced Carter’s nomination during a ceremony at the White House, saying he had emphasized to him the need “to make smart choices, precisely because there are so many challenges out there.”

If confirmed, Carter would replace Chuck Hagel who announced his resignation last month. Carter served as deputy defense secretary under Leon Panetta from October 2011 to December 2013.

Carter has won praise from some Republicans, suggesting he will face a smooth Senate confirmation.

Hagel did not attend Friday’s event. A defense official said the outgoing secretary did not want to distract from Carter’s nomination.

Obama said Carter knows the Pentagon “inside and out,” which means “on day one, he’ll be ready to hit the ground running.”

Carter will inherit a tense relationship between the US military and the White House that is unlikely to ease even with a fresh face at the helm of the Pentagon, experts said.

In brief remarks Friday, Carter signaled that he would not shy from expressing his opinion in his new role.

“If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice,” he said to Obama.

A policy wonk with degrees in medieval history and theoretical physics, Carter is a bonafide defense expert. But he is also a blunt-talking figure who could collide with what his predecessors have called the White House’s tendency for “micromanagement.”

With years of experience in senior Pentagon posts, “it’s hard to imagine someone better prepared for this job,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor at George Washington University who got to know Carter at Harvard.

“He’s widely respected among Pentagon civilians and the uniformed military. He’s a capable, experienced manager. He’s breathtakingly smart,” Biddle said.

Hagel became President Barack Obama’s third defense secretary following a distinguished Senate career as a Nebraska Republican, and was a nationally known figure who was also a Vietnam veteran.

Carter, by contrast, has spent nearly four decades in and out of Washington, and in a town with many powerful people working behind untold numbers of closed doors, he managed to make it onto a coveted list of the “most powerful, least famous” people in Washington, DC.

A civilian, Pentagon insider, Harvard professor and Rhodes scholar, Carter is known in defense circles as an efficient administrator with an effective working relationship with the Pentagon’s top brass, while Hagel was seen as having an adversarial relationship on issues of military budgeting.

Hagel’s nomination in 2013 chafed at some in pro-Israel circles, sparking concern that his Senate confirmation would be held up due to comments he made in the past about the influence of the “pro-Israel lobby.”

Carter, however, is relatively quiet on Israel — at least publicly. But what he has said has been supportive.

His first official trip to Israel was in 2013 — shortly after a visit by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Carter met with Ya’alon, then-national security adviser Yaakov Amidror and Defense Ministry Director Udi Shani, who hosted an official dinner for him.

Ashton Carter touring an Israel Defense Forces' position in northern Israel in 2013 (photo credit: US Department of Defense)
Ashton Carter touring an Israel Defense Forces’ position in northern Israel in 2013 (photo credit: US Department of Defense)

Observing members of the Oketz IDF Canine Unit, Carter told the soldiers that “protecting America means protecting Israel, and that’s why we’re here in the first place.”

He then described observing the canine unit’s tactical demonstration as “the fun part,” shaking the troops’ hands and distributing commemorative coins from his office.

Carter — who was twice passed over for the top Pentagon role — would inherit something that seems like a poisoned chalice. Obama’s other top candidates for the position have gracefully bowed out of this round — a sure sign of dysfunction — and Carter is the last man standing.

On the tail of Hagel’s epic resignation/firing, and the scathing tell-all memoirs recently published by his predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Carter will need to rebuild confidence in the Pentagon-White House channel as a whole.

Carter’s relative quiet on Israel is balanced by a long series of statements on Iran.

Whereas, previously, the State Department has almost exclusively managed the ongoing P5+1 talks with Iran, the appointment of Carter to the top Pentagon position would introduce a new cabinet member with a vocal record on the subject.

Carter brings to the table over 20 years’ worth of experience with nuclear policy, giving him a potentially credible voice in cabinet discussions.

During president Bill Clinton’s first term, Carter served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and had a formative role in shaping the deals that resulted in the nuclear disarming of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Although his policy papers tend to be nuanced and complex, Carter’s position can be characterized as advocating strong action to further non-proliferation aims. In comparison with the administration, Carter seems to place more weight on the significance of credible military force in conducting denuclearization negotiations with Iran.

Although the Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized that “all options are still on the table,” Carter would likely be seen as the cabinet member placing the greatest emphasis on the military component of the ongoing negotiations.

In 2004, Carter wrote an article for Foreign Affairs proposing that US strategy be applied to an effort to stop production of fissile material. To that end, he called for “establishing a clear US strategy — diplomatic at first, but coercive if necessary — for the complete and verifiable elimination of Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.”

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon meets with United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, July 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ FLASH90)
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon meets with United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, July 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ FLASH90)

In his vision, the US would “also seek agreement that no more fissile material for weapons purposes will be produced anywhere, including in India, Pakistan and Israel” — all US-allied states. Israel has never publicly acknowledged any nuclear weapons program, and has thus resisted any efforts to bring it under any nonproliferation conventions.

In the same article, Carter also accused a “distracted” Bush administration of having “left the initiative for curbing Iran’s evident nuclear ambitions to two groups that failed to support the Iraq invasion: the Europeans and the UN.”

He reiterated his case for coercion in a 2006 report for the Carnegie Endowment, in which he wrote that “diplomacy and coercion should be mutually reinforcing,” later suggesting that the US could leverage certain “sticks” to “persuade the Iranian regime to accept a diplomatic outcome.”

That report suggested that a single airstrike could have “an important delaying effect” on Iran’s nuclear program, but that repeated attacks were necessary to significantly damage Tehran’s program.

In the past, Carter has collaborated with a number of other experts who have supported moderate-to-hard approaches toward Iran.

The year Obama was elected, Carter teamed up with Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs head Michael Makovsky, former ambassador Dennis Ross, and others to approve a report on Iranian nuclear development.

The report asserted that Iran was, in fact, attempting to build a nuclear weapon and that it constituted a threat to “US and global security, regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime.” Although those conclusions are commonplace in Washington today, at the time, the report flew in the face of a CIA report published less than a year earlier, which asserted that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program.

The Carter-Makovsky-Ross report also suggested that traditional deterrent policies were toothless in the face of Iran’s “extremist ideology” and that Iranian defiance of international conventions and resolutions” would “be among the greatest foreign policy and national security challenges” for a new president. It took a hardline approach to regional power, advising the incoming president to massively reinforce a US military presence in the Middle East, including placing additional missile defense batteries and “pre-positioning additional US and allied forces” in the region.

President Barack Obama, standing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, talks about Hagel's resignation during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, November 24, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, standing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, talks about Hagel’s resignation during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, November 24, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Officials privately say Hagel was forced out after losing the confidence of the White House, as the United States wages an air war against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Carter will be expected to manage the US-led campaign, but he will face White House aides who critics say have been unwilling to relinquish control on big strategic questions.

Two former defense secretaries, Gates and Panetta, both complained bitterly in recently published memoirs that Obama’s White House distrusts the military and often tries to shut out the Pentagon from decision-making.

Both men accused the White House of taking decisions on troop numbers and strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan based more on political calculations than national security interests.

Hagel also became frustrated with meddling from the White House, officials and lawmakers said.

“There’s always some level of tension in civilian-military relations, but it’s been higher in this administration, there’s no question about it,” Biddle said.

The acrimony peaked during Obama’s first term as he weighed advice on the war in Afghanistan. After a protracted internal debate marked by incessant leaks, Obama opted to send more troops as the military requested. But he also set a timeline for a rapid drawdown that is still a source of resentment for many commanders.

The White House on Thursday sought to play down the tension with the Pentagon during Obama’s tenure, saying such friction is “not unique to this administration.”

Carter’s background in academia, industry and Pentagon management resembles another former defense secretary who also has served as his mentor: William Perry, who was defense secretary during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s.

Perry has praised him as “superbly qualified.”

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