The Next Face of the Pentagon Won’t Be Wearing a Uniform
New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wants a civilian as Pentagon press secretary.
Should a uniformed member of the military serve as spokesperson for the Pentagon, a job that often requires explaining -- and defending -- White House policy decisions?
Should a uniformed member of the military serve as spokesperson for the Pentagon, a job that often requires explaining — and defending — White House policy decisions?
Ashton Carter, the new defense secretary as of Tuesday, doesn’t think so, and so he’s looking to replace Rear Adm. John Kirby, who’s done the job since December 2013, with a civilian. Carter’s decision was first reported by the New York Times on Wednesday. It’s not clear yet who Carter will pick to replace him.
In the meantime, there are other signs that Carter wants to reinforce civilian control of the military. Defense One reported on Wednesday that Carter had planned his very first meeting in the Pentagon to be with the three military service secretaries, as a reminder of the oversight role that civilians have over those in uniform. He had to postpone the meeting with the secretaries because of a snowstorm in Washington. He was able to have a one-on-one meeting with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. He also held a meeting with Dempsey, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work.
“I will be a stickler for the chain of command,” Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month.
Putting a civilian back in the job of press secretary will be a return to business as usual. Kirby is not the first person in uniform to speak for the Pentagon, but it is rare for the chief spokesman to be an active-duty member of the military, largely because the job can require responding to political attacks on current administration policy.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel picked Kirby to replace George Little, who had served Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when Panetta was CIA director and moved with him to the Pentagon in 2011.
Kirby made the job more high-profile than his predecessor, frequently appearing on CNN and Fox News to discuss the military strategy against the Islamic State, among other issues. Kirby previously served as a spokesman for then-Adm. Mike Mullen when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as the chief spokesman for the Navy.
But now, Carter is looking for a civilian to do the job, so Kirby’s out.
“I think what he rhetorically wants to ask and consider is not just who the individual is, but what the individual represents, and whether it’s appropriate or not to have a uniform up here,” Kirby said at a press briefing Tuesday.
A reporter asked Kirby whether he ever felt uncomfortable having to defend the White House’s decisions or policies.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been a big issue for me,” Kirby responded, saying he thought that was partly because the Pentagon press corps is rarely political in its questioning.
But Kirby has had to weather attacks from Republicans who’ve accused him of parroting what they see as White House spin. Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called him an “idiot” because he wouldn’t agree with McCain’s assessment that the Islamic State is winning and the U.S.-led coalition is losing.
On Wednesday, Kirby said, “There have obviously been some questions that try to veer into political discussions … but they are few and very, very far between.”
One of those rare heated political exchanges happened on Friday in the Pentagon briefing room.
Veering away from the issues dominating the news, a reporter with Fox News asked Kirby whether he would say “that Barack Obama, as commander in chief, has had a positive impact on the morale of the men and women of the United States armed forces?”
Kirby said he took issue with the question. “The commander in chief is the commander in chief, and it doesn’t matter who he is. He has by dint of his office, and by being elected by the American people, he deserves and he has the respect of every man and woman in the United States military. And that’s just the way it is.”
After being pressed further, he said, “I am not going to get drawn into a political debate here … I’ve been in the Navy 28 years and I’ve served under many presidents, and I can tell you that speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me who sits in that office. That doesn’t change the way I do my job.”
The tension for members of the military between remaining apolitical while also serving the president as commander-in-chief is not unique to the spokesman role.
When the service chiefs go to Capitol Hill to testify on the budget, they are expected to defend the White House’s request and not ask for more money or publicly disagree with decisions to cut troops or weapons programs. In turn, lawmakers frequently voice their suspicion that they are not hearing what general officers truly think. On the other hand, on the few occasions when military officers’ opinions differ from that of the White House they are chastised for becoming too political and bucking civilian control of the military.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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