When Defense Secretary Ash Carter began to prepare for his confirmation hearings last month, he and aides sought the advice and counsel from some unconventional thinkers, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Most observers in the national security community expected Carter, who resigned in 2013 as the Pentagon’s deputy defense secretary, to walk into the job with his eyes closed. The physicist by training is long thought to be one of the smartest people in any room, largely because, most people will say, he actually is. But to Carter’s mind, the job of secretary of defense required a new level of thinking about the world, the massive bureaucracy that is the Defense Department, American governance, the economy and even human rights.
So Carter’s aides set up a series of meetings and phone calls with national leaders like Bloomberg, who has returned to his company, and Cantor, who joined the Wall Street investment bank of Moelis & Co. as managing director. Carter, 60, also sought counsel from Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund; Denny Blair, the retired Navy admiral ousted by the Obama White House as director of national intelligence in 2010; and Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First, a human rights advocate lesser-known in military circles but who has been influential on everything from the debate on the authorization of military force to the closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The variety of individuals selected to provide Carter input as he prepared for a job he has coveted for years reflects a level of “intellectual humility,” as one former adviser put it.
It also shows how a man who people often describe as decisive, innovative, and astute – but also highly hyperactive – sees himself as becoming the most activist of Pentagon chiefs in recent years.
“It’s like he’s been genetically engineered to be defense secretary,” said Derek Chollet, who has known Carter for years and just weeks ago resigned as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, a senior policy post at the Pentagon.
Carter spoke with Bloomberg, known for his out-of-the-box thinking on everything from budgets to bureaucracies to Big Gulps, by phone. He also talked with Cantor, the former Republican majority leader who angered the White House repeatedly even though his political independence cost him his seat in Congress. Cantor’s advice was likely sought not only for his political expertise but also for his focus on trade policy, in Asia in particular, a region to which Carter has been naturally drawn in recent years. Before Carter was the Pentagon’s deputy, he served as the building’s weapons buyer.
Carter also spent time discussing a range of issues with Blair, a Washington hand known for possessing informed perspectives on global security threats, and perhaps not always sharing the same views as many inside Obama’s national security circle. Massimino a member of the board of trustees of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s McCain Institute, was instrumental in pushing out the CIA’s torture report in December, feting McCain and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at the time for their anti-torture stance at Human Rights First’s annual conference. She also played a role in the first days of the Obama presidency during which he announced that he wanted to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bloomberg credited Carter for seeking out alternative viewpoints as he prepared to be Pentagon chief. “To his great credit, Ash Carter is looking for innovative new ideas and solutions,” Bloomberg told Defense One, in an email. “I offered him some thoughts from both a public and private sector perspective, and I look forward to continuing that dialogue as he takes on one of the most difficult - and important - management jobs in the world.”
On Thursday, Carter spoke to Pentagon employees, seeking to differentiate the role he would play now versus previous Pentagon positions he’s held: “this is a very different job from the jobs I’ve had here in the past,” he said.
Speaking substantively for the first time as defense secretary, he told the audience that the U.S. is “the brightest beacon of hope.”
“No other country on earth can say that…And if you want to call that exceptionalism, I call that exceptionalism.”
Carter’s challenges are many: from managing the Afghanistan war drawdown to combatting the spread of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and other terrorist groups into Africa; countering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine; minding NATO’s strained alliance; building U.S. cyber defenses; and out maneuvering China in Asian waters, all while watching over the armed forces and nation’s largest civilian bureaucracy. In Washington, he inherits the political threat of a budget cap called sequester.
The big question will be to what degree the White House will let him manage these issues. His predecessor, Chuck Hagel, attempted to address all the same problems, but faced a National Security Council accused by three successive Obama defense secretaries of micromanagement. Hagel was not able to get traction with Obama aides. But in agreeing to take the job, Carter may have bought himself more latitude with Obama and the White House. And in Carter, the White House may have a leader with enough political skill and bureaucratic acumen to deflect the onslaught of criticism of its national security policies and make recommendations to change those policies that may be seen as politically palatable.
Carter has already indicated he may be his own man, telling the Senate panel that helped to confirm him that he was inclined to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine, which Obama to date has withheld. He has also expressed openness to altering Obama’s plan to drawdown forces in Afghanistan.
As Obama’s fourth defense secretary, Carter may be seen as politically untouchable and undoubtedly has more room than Hagel to influence the debate within Obama’s national security circle. Chollet said no one should expect Carter to go rogue, but acknowledged he has some latitude.
“There’s a lot of room for maneuver within the broad outlines of what the president’s policies are,” Chollet said.
In the meantime, Carter has assembled a team who are familiar inside the Pentagon. He chose Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis, an Army air cavalry officer who had been serving as the head of Army public affairs, to be his senior military assistant. Carter tapped Eric Fanning, who has been serving as undersecretary of the Air Force, as his chief of staff. Both are notable choices: Lewis is the first African-American to serve since Colin Powell held that position in the 1980s. Fanning is the highest-ranking openly gay civilian in the department.
Matt Spence, who has been the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, had joined Carter’s transition team when it became clear Carter would be nominated to replace Hagel. Spence, who had announced he would be leaving the Obama administration after serving since Obama was inaugurated, will continue to work for Carter during the initial stages of transition, advising him not only policy issues in the Middle East but on his strategic priorities for the next two years.
Carter also must choose a new spokesman after Rear Adm. John Kirby, who had served as Hagel’s press secretary, announced Wednesday he would be leaving the Pentagon in the next couple weeks. Carter had privately expressed concerns about the fact that the Pentagon spokesman should not be in uniform. Kirby, previously Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s spokesman, was widely respected among reporters and has said he has always tried to steer clear of politics. But his appointment as a uniformed press secretary under Hagel was an aberration.
In his confirmation testimony, Carter had said pointedly that he would respect the chain of command, and that also implies civilian control of the military. Critics of Kirby’s appointment feared that a military spokesman did not square with that principle.
Carter also said in testimony that he would soon travel overseas. He is expected to appear before Congress to defend the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget in coming weeks. And he’ll likely be making recommendations on Afghanistan and Ukraine by spring.
“There’s plenty to do,” Carter said at the Pentagon Thursday.