President Barack Obama has chosen Ashton Carter, a seasoned Pentagon official, to be his fourth defense secretary, succeeding departing Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to a U.S. official.
Carter, 60, spent more than two years as the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian leader, under former Secretary Leon Panetta and then Hagel. He also served under Obama’s first Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, as the military’s top weapons buyer.
The official asked for anonymity because a final decision hasn’t been announced. White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to comment on whether Carter was Obama’s top choice or whether the president has made a decision.
With Carter, Obama would get a Pentagon chief with expertise in budgeting and procurement at a time when spending constraints are balanced against the need to deal with the Islamic State terrorist group, a revanchist Russia and an assertive China. The choice also illustrates how 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 making.
Hagel’s departure after less than 21 months on the job, reflected policy disagreements over Syria and Iraq as well as a mutual disregard between the defense secretary and Obama’s White House national security team.
One contender for the defense chief post, former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, told Obama last week that she wasn’t interested in job, citing family considerations.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican who will take control of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, said that while Carter is qualified, he’s also “the last man standing.”
“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,” McCain said. “Now, if he’s there to run the Pentagon, I think he will do an adequate job, but he should have no illusions as to where the decisions are made.”
Carter has expressed a philosophical view toward government infighting in the past.
“Public service at senior levels in Washington is a little bit like being a Christian in the Coliseum,” Carter wrote in his autobiography on the Kennedy School’s website. “You never know when they are going to release the lions and have you torn apart for the amusement of onlookers.”
The lack of a clearly stated vision for addressing international threats is one reason the White House had difficulty finding a successor for Hagel, said Representative Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
“The practical reality of it being a two-year contract is probably the great limiting factor, but I also think that our party has some work to do in articulating some foreign policy strategy,” Kilmer said in an interview this morning, just before reports emerged that Carter was Obama’s choice.
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.”
“He knows this stuff and is not what I would call a ‘political’ person,” Inhofe said in an interview.
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” when his nomination comes to a vote.
In announcing his resignation last month, Hagel said he would stay until his successor is confirmed.
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.
Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, said Carter has expertise in defense issues such as nuclear deterrence and purchasing practices.
“There isn’t anyone who is more qualified to do the job, or understands the Pentagon better than Ash Carter,” Thompson said in an e-mail.
As the Pentagon’s former head of weapons procurement, Carter has years of experience dealing with defense contractors as the administration tries to reduce the cost of big-ticket programs.
“Dr. Carter is well known by industry,” said Byron Callan, managing director of Capital Alpha Partners LLC in Washington. “Industry should be satisfied with the choice.”
As assistant secretary of defense for international security policy at the end of the Cold War, Carter won praise for his efforts overseeing the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which oversaw the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
More recently, Carter worked with Gates to scrap dozens of weapons programs as defense budgets were pared back, including halting the purchase of the F-22 Raptor, a stealth tactical fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp. Carter also was credited with speeding up delivery of mine-resistant trucks known as MRAPS that were needed to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Even so, Carter may face questioning in Congress over his management of weapons procurement programs. As the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief from 2009 to 2011, he cited competition for the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship as a model for weapons purchases.
Since then, the program has come under scrutiny in Congress for a host of problems, including development delays and cost increases. Hagel cut the program to 32 ships from 52, saying he had “considerable reservations” about it, and he ordered a study of a new “small surface combatant.”