President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden applaud as Ashton Carter, the administration's nominee for defense secretary, speaks at the White House, on December 5, 2014.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden applaud as Ashton Carter, the administration's nominee for defense secretary, speaks at the White House, on December 5, 2014. Susan Walsh/AP

Obama Brings Ash Carter Back To Lead the Pentagon

The former Pentagon No. 2 vows to give President Obama his ‘most candid military advice.’ By Stephanie Gaskell

Ash Carter is returning to run the Defense Department, a place he knows well. He worked there under the Clinton administration, held the number three spot under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and moved up to play deputy under Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel.

Now Carter, 60, will take charge of the largest government bureaucracy in the country at a time when global conflicts by all accounts are mounting and defense spending is shrinking .

Carter steps into the position at a key turning point for U.S. national security, with the abrupt departure of Hagel after less than two years on the job, amid speculation that he was not the right fit at the right time and frustrated with alleged micromanagement from the White House. President Barack Obama is waging an air campaign and trying to cobble foreign ground forces against Islamic jihadists in Syria and Iraq, just years after ending the Iraq War. Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups are metastasizing across the Middle East and Africa. There are new threats from Russia. And the administration’s proclaimed focus on the Asia-Pacific region has been overshadowed at nearly every turn. Hagel recently canceled a trip there after things began heating up in the Middle East.

And there is sequestration, which Carter considers Enemy No 1. In an op-ed for Defense One last fall, Carter said, “If sequestration holds, the department will be driven to make inefficient and unsound near term funding choices that will reduce our buying power, magnifying the effects of what is already a substantial funding cut and further harming our readiness, as well as carefully laid plans to control program costs.”

But managing the Pentagon’s purse strings is much different than leading the entire department. There are still several policy issues that need to be fixed, including sexual assault, shrinking the forces, the drawdown in Afghanistan, cyber threats and the fundamental question of when and how to exert U.S. military power around the world. During his nomination ceremony at the White House on Thursday, Carter said he’s up to the task.

“If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice. And I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice,” Carter said.

The next secretary of defense may also be subject to incessant micro-management by the White House on a level not seen since the Vietnam War. 
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Obama said he asked Carter to come out of retirement to fill the position because “Ash is also known by our allies and our friends around the world. Having served both Republican and Democratic Secretaries, he’s respected and trusted on both sides of the aisle. He’s been a close partner with our military leaders. And he’s admired by civilian leaders across the department because he’s a mentor to so many of them.”  

Reaction to Carter’s nomination has been mainly positive.

Hagel, who did not attend Thursday’s announcement at the White House, said Carter will enter the job with ease. “In my first year as secretary, when Ash was my deputy, I had the opportunity to work with him on some of our nation's toughest national security challenges. I relied on him to lead some of the Defense Department's most important initiatives,” Hagel said in a statement.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who was also considered for the job, called Carter a “strong choice.”

“He brings vast experience to the Pentagon,” Reed said. “His command of national security policy and his commitment to our men and women in uniform will serve him well as our next Secretary of Defense.”

Carter’s longtime friend and mentor, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, said it was “an outstanding choice.”

“He brings unmatched experience from inside the Pentagon, keen understanding of global challenges and opportunities, and a heartfelt devotion to the men and women of the armed forces. Ash's nomination at this crucial time is important for one other key reason: in this time of often deep political division in the United States, he understands that national security must be bipartisan, and his entire career is testament to that fact,” Scowcroft said in a statement.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also commended the choice, but had a warning for Obama’s national security team.

“I hope that Dr. Carter fully understands that – as previous secretaries of defense have strongly attested – he will likely have limited influence over the tight circle around the president who apparently control the entire strategic decision-making process,” McCain said in a statement. “As former Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta recently suggested, the next secretary of defense may also be subject to incessant micro-management by the White House on a level not seen since the Vietnam War. These are serious challenges which will face the next leader of the Department of Defense, piled on top of the myriad challenges confronting American military readiness here at home and our nation’s security across the world.”

McCain said he expects Carter’s nomination hearing to occur next year, when the new Congress is sworn in, and while Carter should win approval, it’s expected to be contentious.

“I look forward to Dr. Carter's confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, which will provide a valuable opportunity to fully ventilate all of issues around this Administration's feckless foreign policy, and its grave consequences for the safety and security of our nation,” McCain said.

Gordon Lubold and Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.