Two’s a Crowd at the Pentagon

Is the Defense Department big enough for Chuck Hagel and his deputy?

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Editor's note: Less than two months after this story on tensions between the Pentagon's top two officials first ran, Deputy Defense Secretary and Pentagon heir apparent Ash Carter abruptly resigned.

Editor’s note: Less than two months after this story on tensions between the Pentagon’s top two officials first ran, Deputy Defense Secretary and Pentagon heir apparent Ash Carter abruptly resigned.

For Ash Carter, it was a commanding performance. With a view of the Rocky Mountains in the airy conference center of the Aspen Security Forum last month, the deputy secretary of defense astutely addressed some of the thorniest issues confronting the Pentagon: the budget, cyberwarfare and something the trained physicist knows well — nuclear weapons. There was just one thing missing: Carter seemed to forget who he was.

To some in the audience, it seemed like Carter, the Pentagon’s Number Two, was talking as if he didn’t know where exactly he was positioned on the Defense Department’s org chart. And he never once mentioned his boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — the man with whom he had just competed for the job of Pentagon chief. 

To a question about a new initiative to create cyber security teams, Carter spoke with such authority that it took some people aback: "We’re starting this way, because I want to start fast," he said. And a bit later, on the sequester, he spoke again as if he was the man in charge. "I did not take action until it became clear that the budget deal collapsed at the end of the year, and that is because the things that we do under sequester are harmful," he said, adding, "I wasn’t going to do anything harmful to our defense."

While few outsiders would notice anything askew about what Carter said that day, to some there, Carter came off not as a man comfortable in his role as the Pentagon’s deputy, but as someone openly auditioning for the top slot. One friend who was there said that that was Carter just being Carter: prepared, smart and candid. But to some back in Washington, it reflected unchecked ambition. Carter, said one senior defense official privately but who was reflecting the growing sentiment, needed to be more careful.

People close to Carter in the Pentagon insist that the deputy wasn’t overreaching, and that his remarks were intended to be more personal. But combine it with other signals — like a trip this spring to Asia that Carter planned, but neglected to tell Hagel’s front office about until the last minute — and the remarks in Aspen may have been a pivotal moment. Hagel, still trying to prove himself as secretary after his bruising confirmation battle this winter, has begun to hit his stride as the department goes through a fundamental transition after 12 years of war and blank checks.

Now Hagel has begun, gently, to recalibrate Carter’s role to reflect the fact that Hagel is looking to be a more "hands-on" secretary. And while Hagel isn’t limiting Carter’s mission, he is in the middle of changing the dynamic in the E-Ring for his #2 to focus on the budget battles at home — freeing Hagel up to manage the conflicts overseas. But Hagel must tread carefully. Carter is uniquely qualified in the deputy slot. And he has the president’s backing.

"There is a sense of major budgetary uncertainty, and that the deputy needs to be a hands-on manager," said one senior defense official speaking, as many others did, on background because of the sensitivity of the matter. "Ash Carter is not driving policy for the department… Hagel views that as his purview."

To his supporters, Hagel is developing a knack as secretary as a stickler for details, a man who wants to absorb as much information as possible and become the best defense executive that he can be. Hagel is seen as the closer on a major arms deal with Israel and two Arab countries worth $10 billion that will give the U.S. a leg up in the Middle East. And while Hagel’s more than 15 calls to Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have not persuaded the Egyptians to relent in their crackdown of dissidents there, Hagel’s fans say that his engagement on the issue has been substantive and thoughtful.

Still, by all accounts, the secretary must rely heavily on his second-in-command, Carter, whose intellect, experience and knowledge are undisputed on an array of matters. But that also may mean there needs to be a better definition of roles and missions.

Carter was widely credited with running the Pentagon before Hagel arrived as the Pentagon’s deputy under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Carter was thought to have free rein to manage the Pentagon as Panetta, known as a hands-off leader, oversaw bigger issues and worked with Capitol Hill on the budget battles. But Hagel has a different style. One other senior official in the Pentagon described Hagel’s approach as one in which he delegates but wants a back-and-forth from underlings as an issue is hammered out; Panetta, however, delegated but wanted a "fully-baked cake" handed to him on the back end.

The dynamic between Hagel and Carter is at best a work in progress, although they have known each other professionally for some time. But Carter will now have to cater to a new type of demand.

It’s something he’ll do well, say Carter’s many fans inside and outside the Pentagon. Jeremy Bash, Panetta’s former chief of staff, predicted that Carter would one day be the defense secretary, even if not, perhaps, during Obama’s second term. "The reality is that he is so skilled and so smart and so experienced, that any secretary would want him to play a big role, an alter-ego role, and that’s entirely appropriate," Bash said of Carter. "Ash is the go-to guy, and he has earned that place because he has a once-in-a-generation combination of skills, intellect and experience that make him the most valuable and valued defense professional today."

Carter, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is generally thought to be the biggest brain in most rooms. But even those who admire him have sensed a certain insecurity about playing second fiddle when he so clearly wants to be the Pentagon’s lead player. Still, he is widely respected for being steeped into the driest details of Pentagon policy, programs and budgets — all skills Hagel needs as he manages the department’s transition. "It’s very much a kind of [chief executive officer-chief operating officer] kind of relationship," said another senior defense official, "where you won’t have two folks in the same place simply because of the mounting set of uncertainties and challenges before us."

Another senior defense official who is close to the matter said that under Hagel, Carter has attended high-level "principals meetings" at the White House, get-togethers that are ordinarily reserved for cabinet-level officials. Carter’s place at the meetings is a sign of the trust Hagel has in him; it’s something he didn’t do under Panetta. Carter also briefed Vice President Joe Biden on an important classified issue, the defense official said, noting the trust Hagel places in Carter; Carter will also play a prominent role in the pivoting of forces and military attention to Asia.

"The role is not necessarily diminished," said that official, "it may be different because Hagel and Panetta have different styles, but Ash is still being asked to do some of the most important work for the Department and the Secretary."

And although a recent "Strategic Choices and Management Review" was Hagel’s initiative, it was Carter, who along with the building’s number two in uniform, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld, who led that analysis of the Pentagon’s top priorities. So comfortable was Carter with the details of the review that Carter, not Hagel, briefed its results on Capitol Hill.

Informed by the Pentagon of this story, a steady stream of senior military officers and defense officials provided Foreign Policy with unsolicited input about the value Carter brings to the Defense Department’s leadership. The statements and calls came from luminaries of the security establishment such as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, and former Congresswoman Jane Harman. All of them expressed their extremely, deeply, profoundly positive views about this "most talented" (Panetta) "universally respected" (Dempsey) man with an "intellect, leadership, and ability to get things done" (Harman).

Another was Winnefeld, who volunteered his analysis of the different leadership styles of Panetta and Hagel — and how Carter figured into both. "Panetta’s style was that of big Italian family… Hagel’s style is that of an independent Midwesterner," Winnefeld wrote in an e-mail. For both men, Carter has been "an extremely good partner, incredibly hard working, collegial, inclusive and stunningly effective."

"Not only has Ash taken on the traditional Deputy Secretary role of running the Department," Winnefeld added, "he’s been a tireless advocate for properly equipping our troops in Afghanistan, for our wounded, ill and injured warriors, and for the Department’s support for veterans, as well as taking on some of the higher level strategic issues confronting a very challenging policy environment."

And in a statement to FP, Hagel said that Carter is a "trusted, experienced and respected leader" and that he relies upon Carter to help him make decisions on national security, the well-being of the military, and on a number of internal matters. "The American people are fortunate to have him as one of their most senior public servants," according to the statement from Hagel.

Indeed, the notice that Carter elicited by his remarks in Aspen in July may be a residual from the role he played under Panetta, who directed Carter to run the department so he could focus on larger matters. Traditionally, there’s a different division of labor between the defense secretary and his deputy. The secretary focuses outwardly — guiding the military strategically, doing most of the international travel, briefing the commander in chief, and being the face of the Pentagon. The deputy is supposed to handle the day-to-day operations, managing programs, budgets, keeping inter-service rivalries at a dull roar and ensuring the trains run on time.

Those roles have been upended in recent years. Bill Lynn, the deputy under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was considered ineffective for a variety of reasons. Among them: that Gates’s special assistant Robert Rangel functionally usurped the deputy’s job, taking a strong hand guiding the Pentagon’s day-to-day doings. That left Lynn largely out of the loop — and frustrated. When Panetta arrived, he was happy to allow Carter to assume that role of managing the building. But now, as Hagel seeks to establish himself as an effective secretary, there is change once again. While Carter will maintain much of his portfolio, his travel will likely be more limited and his focus will be shifted to inside the Pentagon. But as military types like to say, it ain’t soup just yet — the relationship is still being formed.

"There is a certain degree of structural shift," said Shawn Brimley, a former director of strategic planning on the National Security Council and a former advisor to the Pentagon’s policy planning staff. As the wars end and the Pentagon’s focus turns inward, both the secretary and the deputy secretary are by definition focused on many of the same things. "Now you have the Secretary and the Deputy focused internally, certainly in ways that are abnormal in terms of the last 13 years."

Carter was on the very short list to be defense secretary. He was considered, along with Hagel and former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy. Both Carter’s and Flournoy’s credentials and bona fides as leaders of the Pentagon were clear. But President Barack Obama went in a different direction. When the president made his choice, one former defense official said, he told Carter that he was picking between a manager and a presider. And the president said he wanted a presider, according to this official, and so gave the nod to Hagel. Obama also was looking for more of a household name, and while Carter’s credentials were unsurpassed, Hagel was better known.

After Hagel was tapped and prevailed during the nasty confirmation battle, it was clear that Hagel would want his own people around him. He soon chose Mark Lippert, who had broad experience at the White House and on Capitol Hill, as his chief of staff. Recently Hagel announced that he would ask Army Maj. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams to be his senior military assistant, replacing Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who had worked for Panetta. But Hagel was given the job under at least one condition: he would keep Ash Carter on. "The President had asked [Carter] to stay, [replacing Carter] wasn’t going to happen," said one former official.

Under Panetta, Carter’s portfolio included building and maintaining international partners, and Hagel has both supported and encouraged that, senior defense officials said.

Also under Panetta, Carter ran a so-called "Senior Integration Group," which assessed the needs of the commanders in Afghanistan and helped to coordinate missions with NATO partners. He will continue that under Hagel. Carter has also been particularly focused on the relationship between the U.S. and India after Panetta asked him to help drive that relationship to a new level. "Hagel is very supportive of that," said one senior defense official. Iraq is another example, defense officials said, where Carter has been instrumental in working through the "difficulties with our partner, [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki]" to smooth the way for foreign military sales.

But now that his boss, Hagel, is getting more comfortable on the job, it’s clear that Carter is being asked to adapt. It won’t be hard for him, his supporters contend.

"One of the great things that the Secretary relies on Ash for is his nimble thinking," another senior defense official said. "He is a rocket scientist after all."

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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