President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Ashton Carter, so far appears to be headed toward a smooth confirmation, unlike his predecessor, who was opposed by Republicans and numerous Jewish foreign policy organizations prior to, and during, his confirmation.
Described by those who know him well as a brilliant thinker and technocrat, Carter brings to the job decades of Pentagon experience at the highest levels and an impressive academic pedigree.
Carter, 60, attended Yale University, receiving degrees in physics and medieval history followed by a stint as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University from which he received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
After getting interested in public policy, Carter joined the Pentagon and has served for nearly three decades in various high-level posts during the Clinton and Obama administrations, most recently as deputy secretary of defense until 2013, when he resigned and began teaching at Harvard University.
“I think he’s someone who understands the Defense Department, he’s someone who is a leader and I think if he’s given the standard amount of leeway and discretion to run the department, he will do a good job,” said Steven Kantrowitz, a retired admiral in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps and a former longtime Pentagon employee. “While I have never personally worked for him or with him, his reputation in general is pretty impressive. I think Carter is obviously a brilliant guy, in contradistinction to … his predecessor.”
Kantrowitz pointed out that the Obama administration has a reputation of micromanaging the DoD, especially through the National Security Council, which has led to tensions between the White House and all former defense secretaries, especially Hagel.
If confirmed by the Senate next year, Carter will become the fourth defense secretary in the Obama administration.
“My concern with Carter is: Is he going to have the leeway?” said Kantrowitz. “And by that I don’t mean in some different manner than what some other secretary would have, but the standard leeway as secretary to lead the department, make policy and do those things, because that’s something we haven’t seen with this administration.
“This administration had a predilection of making the secretary of defense someone who is just an errand boy for the National Security Council and the White House and if that’s going to be the case, then it kind of doesn’t matter who the secretary is.”
Former Pentagon spokesman and current Republican political consultant, J.D. Gordon, agreed with Kantrowitz’s assessment, saying that Carter faces a tough battle against the White House in order to be truly in control of his department after he’s confirmed. Yet, Gordon still thinks that Carter will be an improvement over Hagel, especially for Republicans, whose new Senate majority might have been the reason the president nominated Carter.
“I think he’ll take a more common-sense approach to defense issues. While in the Senate, Hagel represented a far-left view of defense and foreign-policy issues ranging from nuclear weapons to budget cuts, to Iran and Israel, and a range of other issues,” said Gordon. “We’ll be better off with Hagel gone. He represented the far-left of Republicans on defense and foreign policy and was more liberal than most Democrats on Pentagon matters.
“It was highly cynical of President Obama to nominate him in the first place.”
Carter’s most prominent weakness as a nominee is his lack of military experience. Hagel served as an enlisted soldier in the Army during the Vietnam War and earned combat experience – something that some in the administration believe raises morale among the average soldier. But with massive budget cuts to the department and larger foreign-policy failures, most do not know if Hagel’s service made any difference.
“I think when you look at people in the service, they really are looking for more than just a demographic, they’re looking for somebody who will be an advocate for them,” said Kantrowitz, “someone who does successfully run the service, who cares about them on that basic level that they have the resources to do their job, that they have the personal resources that they think are fair. I think the most important thing to people serving is ‘Am I being permitted to do my job? Is my family decently taken care of? Do we have a strategy here?’ ”
More important for many foreign policy-oriented Jewish organizations like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee on Israel, Carter has on numerous occasions demonstrated a personal attachment to Israel.
ZOA president Morton Klein said he is pleased with Carter’s nomination and that he anticipates no problems related to U.S.-Israel cooperation.
“I talked to friends of mine at the Defense Department who told me that Carter has quietly supported Israel over the years and that he’s quite strong with Iran,” said Klein. “They told me that he is a proponent of using military action against Iran if they don’t get rid of the uranium and the centrifuges.”
Klein, who had been openly critical of Hagel during his nomination process, worried last month in an interview about Obama’s pick to replace Hagel, specifically the nominee’s stance on Israel.
“I think this is as good of a person we could have hoped for under Obama for this post. That is my impression after talking to people at the Pentagon,” said Klein. “Of all the Cabinet members, this nominee is the least problematic for Israel.”
According to Klein, sources within the department told him that Carter’s ideological record – which in a few instances opposes official administration positions, as seen by Carter’s more hawkish stance towards Iran and favoring sanctions – did not make him the president’s first choice.
Others who might have been more aligned with the administration declined. The most widely reported instances involved Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
According to Gordon, the others declined the offer because he believes that “they did not want to be too much more associated with the foreign policy and defense failures of the Obama administration.
“They would rather wait and take their chances on nomination [after the 2016 Presidential Election],” he said.
With so many declining the offer for such a prestigious position, why would Carter accept it?
Kantrowitz and Klein said they believe Carter accepted the nomination because he had always aspired for the job.
“It’s really the culmination of a career that’s really has been building to this. He’s a guy who’s served as deputy secretary, he’s a guy who’s served as really one of the most important undersecretaries. This is, I think, important to him,” Kantrowitz said. “I think a guy like Ashton Carter is a patriot. I may disagree with him on some policy things but I think he’s a patriot, and I think he thinks he can probably do a better job than anybody else and he’s probably right.”