WASHINGTON — If there was ever an anti-Chuck Hagel as a candidate for US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter might be it.
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, Obama’s top candidate to become Hagel’s successor, 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.
‘Protecting America means protecting Israel, and that’s why we’re here in the first place’ — Ashton Carter in Israel last year
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.
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.
Should he get the nod, 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.
‘Diplomacy and coercion’
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 de-nuclearization 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.”
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.
In a collaborative effort produced by the Center for New American Security in 2008, it was Carter who wrote the book — or at least the chapter — on applying military pressure toward Iran. While considering the utility and feasibility of US strikes against Iranian targets, Carter also warned that “none of the scenarios of military action described ends, in and of itself, the Iranian nuclear program once and for all.”
Instead, Carter saw the utility of military action as “enablers of a variety of wider strategies to end or contain the Iranian nuclear program but do not appear… to be alternatives by themselves.”
The report warned that any future direct talks with Iran should require Tehran to cease all enrichment — and if Iran does not cease enrichment, the US should set a clear deadline for compliance and ultimately be willing to use military strikes targeting Iranian nuclear and military infrastructure if Tehran failed to comply.
‘Military action must be viewed as a component of a comprehensive strategy rather than a stand-alone option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But it is an element of any true option’
His analysis embraced a framework for talks proposed by Ross in which “the United States would approach Iran’s leaders directly through some mechanism — secret talks, informal emissaries, a Six-Party talks-like multilateral forum providing cover for bilateral US-Iran contacts, a direct presidential appeal, and so on — and offer comprehensive reconciliation and relaxation of pressure in return for comprehensive behavior change by Tehran, especially a curb on its nuclear program.” Even in that case, Carter emphasized, the United States would take military action if Tehran refused to change its behavior.
In his 2008 chapter, Carter also suggested that he saw little strategic difference between the cost to the US of an Israeli strike against Iran rather than a US-led attack. “Even if the United States had no complicity in or knowledge of an Israeli strike, few people on the street throughout the Middle East would believe it,” he warned. “It would also be a challenge for the United States to prove to the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others outside the region that are key to any kind of lasting settlement with Iran that it had nothing to do with the attack. The costs to the United States of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program might therefore be almost as large as the costs of a US strike.”
Carter maintained that despite this fact, “military action must be viewed as a component of a comprehensive strategy rather than a stand-alone option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But it is an element of any true option.”
At the same time, he argued that “for any military element, the sequel to action must be part of the strategy because the military action by itself will not finish the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions once and for all.”
Military action against Iran is not, for Carter, the end of the story, but is rather a potential way of resetting the balance of power in talks — albeit a way that, in his words, “could also easily overturn the diplomatic table.”