Obama’s Defense Pick Brings Expertise Managing Shrinking Budgets – Businessweek
President Barack Obama, whose
administration is under criticism for micromanaging military
strategy, has chosen a nominee for defense secretary who gives
him Pentagon expertise without the independent political power
base of his three immediate predecessors.
Obama has settled on Ashton Carter, 60, who spent more than
two years as the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian official
under former secretary Leon Panetta and then current secretary
Chuck Hagel, according to a U.S. official. He also served under
Obama’s first Defense chief, Robert Gates, as the military’s top
Carter doesn’t have the political prominence of Gates, a
former CIA Director and former defense secretary under President
George W. Bush, or of Panetta, the White House chief of staff
for President Bill Clinton who also served as CIA director and
was chairman of the House Budget Committee. Nor does he bring
the congressional connections of Hagel, who was a Republican
U.S. senator from Nebraska.
It may not matter. Gates and Panetta both wrote in their
memoirs that they felt their advice was ignored and found it
difficult to prevail against a White House staff in spite of
their stature in Washington.
“I hope he understands what his three predecessors have
found, and that is the decision making is in with a handful of
people in the White House,” Arizona Senator John McCain, the
Republican who will take control of the Senate Armed Services
Committee in January, said.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Carter would take
over the Pentagon at a time when spending constraints must be
weighed against the need to deal with the Islamic State
terrorist group, a revanchist Russia and an assertive China.
The U.S. official who said Obama has chosen Carter asked
for anonymity because the final decision hasn’t been announced.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served in the
Clinton administration, said Carter’s experience with the budget
and weapons acquisition programs will be critical given that
he’d take the job with only two years left in Obama’s term.
“He’s got a pretty limited window so you need someone who
really understands the process and doesn’t need any breaking
in,” Cohen said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, while declining
to say if the president has made a choice, praised Carter’s past
service at the Pentagon and highlighted his unanimous
confirmation earlier as deputy secretary.
“He is somebody that does have detailed understanding of
the way that the Department of Defense works,” Earnest said,
adding that promoting highly regarded deputies to the top job
has been “a recipe for success in filling previous personnel
The role of defense secretary, once one of Washington’s
most powerful jobs overseeing the world’s strongest military and
a budget of more than $600 billion, has faded in the Obama era
as White House officials exert more control over policy. Hagel’s
departure after less than 21 months on the job followed
disagreements over Syria and Iraq as well as friction between
the him and Obama’s White House national security team.
“If the White House continues to operate the way it’s been
operating, it will frustrate whoever is the defense secretary,”
said Dov Zakheim, who was undersecretary of defense in Bush’s
administration and deputy undersecretary of defense under former
President Ronald Reagan.
Carter’s experience does give him some clout, Zakheim said.
“It’s not a power base in the conventional sense of the
term, but he’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about, and that
is a power base of a different sort,” he said. “The other side
is, will the White House listen to him?”
While Carter may be effective in running the Pentagon, he’s
unlikely to play a major policy role within the administration,
said Ali Khedery, chairman of Dubai-based Dragoman Partners LLC
who spent several years in Iraq advising U.S. commanders.
“This White House is very insular,” Khedery said.
“Carter is almost certainly not going to be a decisive voice,
particularly given his lack of experience in the Middle East.”
Earnest dismissed suggestions that the experiences of
Gates, Panetta and Hagel in tussling over policy with White
House staff were unique.
“If you, sort of, look back at previous administrations,
that there’s always some natural tension that exists between the
Pentagon and the White House,” Earnest said. “The president
is, after all, the commander-in-chief. So he obviously has
significant say over what kinds of things are happening over at
the Department of Defense.”
Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who was
mentioned as a potential candidate for the job following Hagel’s
resignation, said Carter knows what he is getting into.
“If he’s offered the position, I don’t think he’d accept
unless he felt he had the authority to do what was in the best
interest of the men and women in uniform,” said Reed, who
didn’t have any direct knowledge that Carter was Obama’s choice.
As the Pentagon’s former head of weapons procurement,
Carter has years of experience dealing with defense contractors
as the administration tries to contain the cost of big-ticket
“He has a tremendous background,” Reed said. “One of the
most difficult things for the Pentagon always is acquisition
policy, controlling budgets.”
Automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as
sequestration have already forced the Pentagon to cut about $37
billion in fiscal 2013 and $25 billion in 2014 from previous
budget plans. Unless it is ended by Congress, sequestration
would cut about $500 billion over a decade, including about $35
billion in 2016.
While he has a lengthy resume on defense matters, Carter
never served in the military. He has a doctorate in theoretical
physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
He served as chairman of the International and Global Affairs
faculty at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of
Government, according to his defense department biography.
After leaving as deputy defense secretary in December 2013,
Carter has been a senior executive at the New York-based Markle
Foundation, which works on ways to use emerging technology to
enhance national security and improve health care, according to
Carter’s years of service in Washington make him a well-known figure on Capitol Hill, which may ease his path toward
Senate confirmation. McCain said he doesn’t expect Carter would
have any difficulty finding support in the Senate.
Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on
the Armed Services Committee, said that if Carter has any
enemies, “I just don’t know who they would be.”
Committee Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also said they supported Carter.
“I certainly appreciated his prior experience in the
Pentagon and have a lot of respect for him,” Ayotte said.
Wicker predicted Carter would have “widespread, bipartisan
support” if his nomination comes to a vote.
To contact the reporters on this story:
David Lerman in Washington at
Mike Dorning in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Steven Komarow at