Ashton Carter — a man who has already played the roles of physicist, author, weapons guru, Rhodes Scholar and medieval history expert — is preparing to have a new title: Defense Secretary of the United States.
Carter, who served in the Pentagon’s number two job until December of last year, will come to the job with an in-depth understanding of the department as well as the esteem of defense officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — a rare attribute amid uneasy relationships between the White House, the GOP and the military.
Although Carter has not served in Congress or the armed services, supporters say his previous jobs — including stints in policy work and as the Pentagon’s chief of technology and weapons-buying — have given him a multidimensional understanding of the intersection of politics, real-world military operations and the defense industry.
“He’s worked in almost all fields of defense policy,” says Gordon Adams, a defense expert and professor at American University’s School of International Service. “This is an experienced, well-informed, smart person."
And, with the support of top Republicans like Sens. Jim Inhofe and John McCain, Carter seems poised for an easy confirmation process — welcome news to a White House that will also likely be seeking the Senate’s greenlight for its new attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, at the same time.
"I'm very pleased he is going to be our Secretary of Defense,” Inhofe said earlier this week. “I can't imagine that he's going to have opposition to his confirmation."
McCain similarly praised Carter Thursday, but dinged the White House for what critics call meddling in the department’s operations. “He's a good man, and he's very capable, but he has to understand that he has no influence on the formulation on national security policy because that's all centered around the White House,” he said.
Carter, a Philadelphia native who earned degrees in both physics and medieval history from Yale University, won’t come to the job with the wider name recognition enjoyed by his predecessors, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel and ex-CIA head Leon Panetta. Known as a wonky intellectual who worked his way up the ranks in decidedly unflashy style, Carter has served under 11 Defense secretaries.
That includes a brief and awkward tenure under Hagel, for whom he was passed over early in 2013. Carter, who’d been seen as a top contender for the job then, continued serving for less than a year under the former senator before departing abruptly enough to prompt the Pentagon to issue a statement tamping down suggestions that he’d been forced out.
But Hagel’s time in the top slot did not go as planned. Brought in to manage the winding down of two wars and the downsizing of military largesse, Hagel’s tenure instead saw a multiplication of hot spots globally due to the burgeoning threat of ISIS. His nearly disastrous confirmation hearing gave plenty of fodder to those who grumbled that Carter would have been a far superior pick.
Now, as the new nominee almost two years later, Carter will have to address those conflicts abroad while tending to the often fraught relationship between the White House and a Pentagon whose former leaders have openly complained of micromanagement and stubbornness.
“It’s not been easy for the Secretary of Defense to go over to the White House and push back and say ‘give us the tasks and responsibility, but let us do the execution,’” Adams said, citing the complaints of former secretaries Panetta and Bob Gates. “It’s very difficult politics between the National Security Council, the White House and the Pentagon. Carter’s going to have to walk right into that.”
Frank Thorp contributed to this report.