Ashton Carter to Take Top Pentagon Job

Ashton Carter

Photo courtesy of Department of Defense/

Ashton Carter to Take Top Pentagon Post
| published December 2, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff


The choice is colorless and non-controversial and even a bit bland, but President Barack Obama—after floating several other possible names for to fill the position of Secretary of Defense, then watching those potential nominees decline the position—chose a safe fallback candidate to fill the top job at the Department of Defense.

The President chose Ashton Carter, a longtime Pentagon official with decades of experience at the DoD and with a variety military matters. Carter, whose expertise includes nuclear physics, was already on many observers’ short lists after the announcement came last week that Chuck Hagel was stepping down as Defense Secretary. Hagel and the White House agreed that the Pentagon needed new leadership, and that the timing was right.

Many critics of Obama’s foreign policy, however, say that the timing could not have been worse. Others have suggested that Hagel—who was known to disagree sharply with the White House on certain military matters, especially the U.S. responses to the threat of ISIS—was under pressure from some top officials at the White House. In conservative media circles, there is a belief that Hagel will become the scapegoat for what could be measured failures in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria where the threat from the Islamic State has challenged the stability of both Syria and Iraq.

Carter is an unexciting selection to fill Hagel’s shoes, but he is also seen by many analysts as uncontroversial. A policy wonk with deep and thorough understanding of military matters and foreign policy, some see Carter as ideal during a period which has become arguably President Obama’s biggest international challenge. More importantly, Carter may be able to navigate the often treacherous waters in the U.S. Senate, where he must first gain confirmation. Some GOP members of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee have already voiced tentative approval of Carter for the top Pentagon job.

If confirmed by the Senate, Carter will inherit a tough agenda when he arrives to the Pentagon. ISIS is not the only threat which has gained major headlines this year. A civil war continues to rage in the Ukraine, where Russian-backed militants battle with the Ukrainian army loyal to Kiev, and where East-West tensions reached their most dangerous level since the end of the Cold War. The Ukraine’s civil war shows no signs of letting up, and relations between the United States and Russia are at a low not seen since before the days of Mikael Gorbachev. Carter will also have to analyze tensions in the Pacific and in the South China Sea, where recent incidents between Chinese fighter pilots and U.S. aviators have been described as “provocative” by many at the Pentagon. And newly-flamed tensions between North and South Korea may also prove problematic for Carter once he assumes the role of Defense Secretary.

Obama’s chief foreign policy and military goal for 2014 was to be a systematic and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the Ukrainian crisis and the sudden arrival of ISIS disrupted a period meant to be one of de-escalation for the President. Around that same time, intensely violent battles between Hamas in Gaza and Israel challenged the U.S. template for stability in the area around Israel—a close U.S. ally in the Middle East. Relations between U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained during the last two years.

Carter may relish the fact that his Senate confirmation hearings will go relatively smoothly. The top GOP member of the committee, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), said publicly that if Carter was in fact the nominee that confirmation would likely be painless. The position of Secretary of Defense is a prestigious one and often considered on a par with Secretary of State. But the fact that Hagel’s departure came so late in the Obama presidency—and coupled with the complex tapestry of international tensions and hotspots—has made the job a little less than attractive to several well-qualified candidates, some of whom turned down the job outright. Michele Flournoy, who would have been the first woman to serve in the top Pentagon role, flatly rejected the offer after two days of speculation. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island also reportedly turned down White House entreaties.

Two past Defense Secretaries—Leon Panetta and Robert Gates—have been openly critical of the Obama White House for its handling of military matters. Panetta, Gates, and (frequently) Hagel, have complained that top White House staffers often micro-manage military strategy, battlefield tactics, and policy direction.

Carter is well-liked and non-controversial. He is also intimately familiar with Pentagon detail work. Among other things, he served for about two years, from 2011 to 2013, as the deputy Defense Secretary who signed-off on weapons systems and analyzed weapon effectiveness. There are few weapons or technologies in use today that he is not familiar with, and Carter would also have extensive knowledge of systems still under development and testing.

Carter’s arrival at Defense may also be fortuitous for the aging nuclear arsenal and the sometimes controversial team of technicians and military crews who watch over those powerful missiles. Carter has a degree in physics from Yale, and he also served on the advisory boards of the Draper Laboratory and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. Carter is also a favorite of the top generals and admirals, who say he works well with uniformed staff and civilian staff alike. Carter is considered a supporter of the military chain-of-command, and is considered also a good listener in conferences with the top brass.

Hagel has said he would stay on the job until a replacement could be secured and approved by the Senate.

Related Thursday Review articles:

After Hagel: What Now for U.S. Military Policy?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 25, 2014.

Battling ISIS: Will Air Power be Enough?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 17, 2014.