Ashton Carter: The Safest Selection for White House

Ashton Carter aboard Ike

Dr. Ashton Carter is greeted by officers aboard the Nimitz-class
aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower in this 2012 image;
photo courtesy Dept. of Defense

Ashton Carter: The Safest Selection for
White House
| published December 4, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Someone asked us on social media a few days ago: why Ashton Carter? Good question. Carter doesn’t fit the bill normally associated with key nominations by President Barack Obama, especially given the President’s penchant for barrier-breaking appointments for high-profile positions.

So that leaves the question open, and there are two short answers: Carter said yes to the job; and, more importantly perhaps, Ashton Carter will arrive in front of the U.S. Senate with little—if any—controversy.

Carter was by some accounts fourth or fifth on the talking-points-short-list at the White House. Michele Flournoy, clearly Obama’s first choice, mulled it over for a day and a half through the usual media frenzy, then, said “no thanks.” Others whose names were floated in the media and among Washington insiders weren’t as polite or circumspect. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), a former Army officer and the ranking member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters flatly he was not interested. U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D-Washington), a moderate “new” Democrat who worked his way through college as a cargo loader for United Airlines and UPS, and who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, likewise shot down the idea before it ever even gained speed on the runway.

There was also the name of Robert Work, a deputy secretary of defense and a retired Marine colonel, but Work may have been the one rumored to have told a White House liaison not only no but hell no. Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), was a widely discussed option—a West Point graduate and an Army paratrooper who later earned a Masters of Public Policy from Harvard, then, after his retirement from military service, his law degree. A spokesman for Reed told reporters the Senator was committed to serving the voters of Rhode Island. And there were out-of-the-box suggestions, like the one urging Obama to consider soccer hero Tim Howard for the job.

And according to the gossip of several White House insiders, at least three others were asked—unofficially through social channels—but after a few hours of consideration rejected the offer.

In an ideal world, Secretary of Defense would be as high profile and coveted as it gets—second, perhaps, only to the State Department. In terms of spending, Defense is the Big Dog—billions in spending at a trough which virtually guarantees—upon retirement—lucrative book dividends, fat speaking fees, hefty consulting gratuities, and comfortable lobbying salaries.

In other words, when the President calls and asks if you want that job, the correct answer is yes.

But for the White House, these are not ideal times. Foreign policy and the wide-ranging military implications have been thrust in painful and costly ways onto a President whose chief objective at this stage of his tenure was the orderly and systematic withdrawal of American force from Afghanistan. And at this point, even extraction from that 12 year old war is turning out to be more difficult than expected.

When Chuck Hagel announced that he was leaving his top job at the Department of Defense, it seemed a cruel reminder to this administration—and a moral lesson for many others—that international crises, foreign affairs, and war do not necessarily move on a pre-arranged, pre-scheduled timetable, and rarely with the neatness needed to bring closure to campaign promises. More specifically, no president wants to leave office with the messy, unfinished business of war on the table. For a refresher course on what this does to an historical legacy, read any biography of Lyndon Johnson.

The globe is not where President Obama and his top people wanted it to be at this point in his second term. Aside from may turn out to be a more troubling and complex extraction from Afghanistan, half a dozen other brushfires have flared-up just since late January. The Ukrainian crisis—at first just a semi-peaceful Occupy-style challenge to a regime with heavy debts to Moscow—turned ugly, then violent. The result was civil war, with half the country in support of Kiev, the other half, seemingly, willing to acquiesce in a tilt toward Russia. The crisis escalated so quickly and so dangerously that it became the gravest East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War, and it served as a reminder that the Soviet-era DNA which threads through Vladimir Putin’s fiber (he is, after all, a former-KGB station chief) has a default political position which trumps the conciliatory side of a man seen actually smiling at the Olympics in his beloved Sochi. The President, likewise, did not need the violent, gruesome mess that emerged in this latest round of open warfare between Hamas, in Gaza, and Israel. The U.S. seemed powerless to have any sway over the spiral of killings and retributions, and thousands died (mostly Palestinian civilians) in a siege that threatened to unravel what Americans had hoped would be a tenuous peace.

But it was the unwelcome arrival of ISIS which truly unraveled the White House’s plans for a quiet period of military de-escalation. The Islamic State, formed in the lawless pressure cooker of northern Syria and made up of the worst elements of al Qaeda, radical Islamic extremists, and thugs once loyal to Saddam Hussein—not to mention components of other anti-Assad rebels—thrust itself onto the world stage with chilling violence and an operating handbook pilfered from Medieval times. The rapid advance of ISIS forces across so much of Iraq threatened to render meaningless all those lives lost in a long and costly war. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to open up his government in Baghdad to Sunni’s meant that ISIS—at first, at least—received a warm but guarded welcome in some parts of northern Iraq. Ahead of the ISIS advance, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army collapsed, fleeing in panic toward the south, abandoning uniforms and a billion dollars’ worth of mostly American-made military hardware. ISIS militants swiftly advanced toward the border checkpoints with Jordan, with some units now within striking distance of Saudi Arabia, and others so close to the border with Turkey that Syrian and Iraqi refugees can watch the fighting between ISIS units and Kurdish fighters. Kurdish enclaves like the city of Kobani remain under siege from ISIS militants bent on subjugation and mass murder, and ethnic and religious minorities—Christians, Yezidis, Kurds, and others—continue to flee into Jordan and Turkey.

ISIS has, in effect, shattered all the previously tenuous arrangements and fragile templates. Hagel, like his predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, has been critical of the way the White House has managed these tensions. Hagel was especially put off by a small cadre of those closest to the President—among them Vice-President Joe Biden—who routinely meddled in decision-making and attempted to filter incoming information. The confrontations with ISIS were unwelcome in the foreign-policy template so cherished by the White House, and as such this led to uncomfortable meetings when Hagel was in the room. Often bullied and micromanaged, Hagel—like Gates and Panetta before him—eventually opted for silence when in cabinet meetings or inside the foreign policy loop.

For its part, the White House has floated the narrative that Hagel was not a good communicator and was never fully able to make the stretch required for the challenge ISIS posed. Some reporters and Washington analysts have suggested that Hagel has been set up to take the blame for everything that has—and probably will—go wrong in Syria and Iraq. Hagel has complained that the problems of Iraq and Syria deeply pre-date his arrival on the job. The long, bloody Syrian civil war and the sectarian fault lines which ran through the still not-fully-healed Iraq were each, in their own ways, tender boxes waiting for a spark.

Hagel and the White House coordinated their statements to create the least injury, saying that it was time for the Pentagon to have new leadership, but the sometimes outspoken Hagel may someday soon let his anger at the White House slip out—probably in book form.

Hagel’s apparent replacement, Ashton Carter, is a man with a deep and thorough career in military affairs. He is the nerd’s nerd, and the wonk’s wonk. A graduate of Yale and Oxford, he is also the author of the pre-9/11 book (with William Perry) Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America, published by the Brookings Institution Press. Carter has long served in top roles at the Pentagon, including his current position as Deputy Secretary of Defense. From 2009 to 2011, he was basically the top guy at the Pentagon when it came to evaluating and purchasing weapons systems and hardware. From 2011 to 2013 Carter served as the number two man at Defense, and was charged primarily with the task of overseeing that $600 billion wartime budget. His encyclopedic understanding of every level of Pentagon operations, his deep knowledge of even the most obscure weapons and tools, and his tireless ability to absorb and synthesize technological change and shifting risk, prompted Leon Panetta to liken Carter to the fictional Scotty in the old Star Trek series.

“I worked on the bridge,” Panetta said, “while he manned the engine room.”

For the most part, Carter has received high marks from both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, GOP members of Congress have been almost universal in their agreement that Carter is the right man at the right time. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), however, is a dissenter on this point, complaining that after six years of failing to work with independent thinkers like Gates, Panetta and Hagel, the President just wants a yes-man at the Pentagon. Carter, in Cruz’s view, would be a lackey for White House policy, no matter how reactive and cautious it might be.

But Obama wants nothing to do with a confirmation fight over the top job at the Pentagon. The President has enough potential political danger on the horizon now: next month, the GOP will take burnish its large majority in the House and take control of the U.S. Senate with its most significant leverage since the 1940s. Immigration bills wait, along with the now typical threats of government shutdowns. Health care laws may yet be thrown back into legal play. But the President’s handling of ISIS and the general meltdown in Middle East security—which has made Americans fearful and uncomfortable—has badly damaged Obama’s popularity and approval numbers (once among some of the highest numbers in recent history). In fact, his low popularity was so toxic this past November, most Democratic candidates avoided contact with the President, choosing instead to campaign as quasi-independents, and stressing their important differences with Obama. Carter’s nomination deftly navigates around this problem.

The White House has openly acknowledged that Carter diffuses the gridlock thing. White House press spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Carter “definitely deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government.”

Carter would also be the first Secretary of Defense in decades without a background of uniformed military service, nor any time spent in elective office. Many appointees to the job come from the House or Senate, and many have served in the military. But Carter is well-liked and well-trusted by the military brass, and his long tenure in top Pentagon jobs means that he understands how and when to navigate the bureaucratic shoals.

Carter’s choice may also reflect the pragmatic view that the Department of Defense needs someone at the helm without undue attachments to ego and without deep political ambitions. Carter, a career manager and policy geek, is not likely to run for public office. And what Ted Cruz sees as a negative—that of the selfless technocrat working at the behest of the President—may work to the benefit of both Carter and the Pentagon. Carter is not likely to get his feelings bruised even by the crowding and bullying of people like Joe Biden, or the good-cop-bad-cop pressures from national security advisors Anthony Blinken and Dennis McDonough.

Those who have worked with Carter over the decades suggest also that the first impression of Carter as a potential rubber-stamp for Obama policy is false. Carter is known for speaking candidly to power, often bluntly, and his advanced knowledge of Pentagon operations, budget complexities and weapons systems means he will not be easy to badger or push into a corner. Though not colorful or outspoken, Carter would also—in theory at least—be able to hold his own with reporters, members of Congress, or the White House inner circle.

Some have pointed out that Carter would also be a realist when it comes to the multiple threats on the battlefield today. One of the general complaints about the foreign policy of Barack Obama has been its lack of a cohesive military strategy and a failure to proactively address the small brush fires—before they become prairie fires.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Ashton Carter to Take Top Pentagon Post; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; December 2, 2014.

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

You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014.