After Missteps, White House Likely to Tap Ash Carter as Next Pentagon Chief

The administration fired Chuck Hagel without having a replacement lined up, but Obama seems to have found the man he wants to run the Pentagon next.


Ashton Carter, a former deputy defense secretary and theoretical physicist with a reputation for independence and blunt talk, seems virtually certain to be President Barack Obama’s pick to become the next Pentagon chief, with a senior administration official saying he is the leading candidate in a rapidly shrinking field.

White House officials declined to confirm Carter’s selection, which would cap a messy week for the administration that began with Obama abruptly ousting Chuck Hagel Monday of last week, Nov. 24, without having a successor lined up to replace him. In an embarrassment for the administration, one leading contender, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, pulled himself out of the running hours after Hagel’s firing was made public. A bigger blow came last Tuesday when Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as the front-runner, took herself out of consideration as well. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the last name known to be under consideration, said on Monday that he wasn’t interested in the job.

That leaves Carter, a highly regarded technocrat who has long been seen as one of the brightest lights in Democratic national security circles. On the flip side, some of those who have worked with Carter complain that he can come across as condescending and arrogant. Carter sometimes seemed to be trying to outshine Hagel, creating a tense relationship between them. Carter had been under consideration to replace both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, but didn’t get the job either time.

White House and Pentagon officials declined to confirm Carter’s selection or give any indication when a formal decision could be announced. With the Senate winding down its business for the year, the earliest he would face confirmation would be in January. The Republican-led Senate would doubtlessly grill him about the administration’s strategy for countering the Islamic State, but he wouldn’t likely face much concerted opposition.

If ultimately approved by the Senate, Carter, 60, will take on a mountain of challenges both inside and outside Washington. He’ll have to stave off interference from a West Wing that has tried to exert unprecedented control over the Pentagon and that Hagel, Panetta, and Gates have all accused of both micromanagement and indecision. He’ll also have to fight to preserve the Pentagon’s massive budget at a time when the United States is winding down the war in Afghanistan.

Overseas, meanwhile, Carter will take charge of a Pentagon in the midst of an intensifying battle against the Islamic State. The administration has flatly ruled out the use of ground troops to fight the group in Syria and Iraq, but months of American and allied airstrikes have done little to weaken the militants or dislodge them from the vast areas of the two countries that they control. Carter will also have to figure out how to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan without allowing the Taliban to retake the country’s major cities amid a sharp spike of attacks inside Kabul. Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as China’s assertive moves in its territorial waters, will also pose difficult and challenging questions for Carter and his staff.

Carter’s ascension to the Pentagon’s top post would mark his fourth time at the department. He worked as an arms control official at the Defense Department during then-President Bill Clinton’s administration. In April 2009, he joined the Obama administration as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. He was named the deputy secretary of defense in October 2011 and served in the post for two years.

After leaving the Pentagon last year, Carter in September 2014 joined as a senior executive at the Markle Foundation, a group that promotes American technology. News of his nomination was first reported by CNN, attributing it to unnamed administration officials.

Carter’s predecessors as deputy secretary of defense and as the head of the Defense Department’s sprawling acquisitions arms had spent most of their time in endless meetings in windowless offices at the Pentagon, but Carter broke with tradition and made multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan while in the two jobs. He also took charge of the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles to ensure that their production and delivery were expedited to assist U.S. forces in countering deadly roadside bombs in Iraq.

As the Pentagon’s No. 2 official, Carter became the Obama administration’s point man on the pivot-to-Asia strategy. In particular, Carter took on the role of enhancing defense ties with India and led an effort to loosen technology-transfer restrictions that had stymied sales of U.S. weapons to India.

In terms of geopolitical policy preferences, Carter stands out most stridently for his unusually hawkish views on North Korea. In 2006, when Pyongyang was reportedly in the final stages of fueling a long-range ballistic missile, Carter penned an op-ed with former Secretary of Defense William Perry advocating for a U.S. missile strike on North Korea to take out its Taepodong missile. “Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil?” the two men wrote in the Washington Post. “We believe not.”

Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, Carter was a professor at Harvard University. Although Carter has spent several stints in Washington in high-profile roles, he has written about the perils of public service.

“Public service in senior levels in Washington is a little bit like being a Christian in the Coliseum,” Carter wrote in his faculty profile at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “You never know when they are going to release the lions and have you torn apart for the amusement of onlookers.”

 Twitter: @g_ratnam

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