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Republicans See a New Ally at the Pentagon

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With President Barack Obama’s expected nomination of Ashton Carter to be his next secretary of defense, many Republicans see a potential ally inside the Pentagon. 

The former deputy of the department is a technocrat, a master of the byzantine process of defense acquisitions and a man who has won high marks for his management skills inside the U.S. government’s largest bureaucracy.

But Carter also has a hawkish side. He has been a public advocate for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a step opposed by the more dovish side of the arms-control community. When Carter was an academic, before the Obama presidency, he took a hard line on Iran, arguing that the U.S. should use diplomacy and other kinds of coercion to end the country’s enrichment of nuclear fuel. He even  advocated for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s missiles. During his tenure as deputy secretary of defense, from 2011 to 2013, he was one of the strongest opponents in government of the mandatory defense budget cuts known as sequestration. 

Senator John McCain, the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told us that he and Carter had similar views on a number of issues. “Working together, if you are not having to fight the pentagon, if you’ve got the leader actively working towards the same goal, that’s immensely helpful,” McCain said of Carter.

McCain said he expected to work closely with Carter on issues that aren't micromanaged by the White House, such as reforming the process by which the Pentagon develops and purchases weapons and cutting the Pentagon’s bloated civilian bureaucracy.

On issues where the White House has taken a policy lead, such as the negotiations with Iran or the war in Syria, McCain predicted that even if he did cooperate with Carter, it would not make much of a difference. “He’s not going to have a say in it,” McCain said. “I certainly could work with him  -- on Iran and Syria -- but I guarantee that he would not have any influence on those decisions.”

To be sure, not all conservatives are as upbeat on the prospect of an Ash Carter Pentagon. Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Carter doesn’t have the gravitas of his predecessors such as Robert Gates, Leon Panetta or even Chuck Hagel, who was known for making public remarks at odds with White House policy. “He’s not exactly a guy with all the political skills in the world,” Donnelly said. “He’s a prickly personality, he’s not the world’s greatest communicator, he makes Chuck Hagel look like Winston Churchill.” 

In the end, Donnelly said, even if Congressional Republicans made an alliance with Carter on policy issues against the White House, it would not be worth all that much. “I don’t think having an alliance with Ash Carter is a bad thing, it just doesn’t add that much,” he said. “He is not going to be allowed to speak out freely, or he will end up where his predecessors ended up, on the ash heap of history.”

Some of Carter’s former colleagues in government, however, disputed this characterization. Kurt Campbell, who served in Obama’s first term as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said he predicts Carter “will be an ambitious secretary of defense and he will insist on setting his own agenda.” Campbell added that Carter will “work closely with the White House but he will want a degree of independence and maneuver room to deal with these extremely challenging issues.”

Past stances are also not always a guarantee of future positions for high-level appointees. When Hagel was nominated to replace Panetta at the Pentagon, he was touted by the White House for his opposition to the Iraq war. Yet, once inside the administration, Hagel became one of the strongest advocates for a more aggressive policy in Iraq and Syria, following the rise of the Islamic State in those two countries.

One of the most challenging issues for Carter will be to work with the military’s most senior generals at a moment when the White House has asked them to fight a new war in Syria and Iraq even as the Pentagon has been forced to make across-the-board cuts to its budget.

“I’m very pleased with the selection of Ash Carter,” one Republican senior Congressional staff member on defense issues said. “He knows how to get stuff done and he’s going to know that Obama can’t fire him. This will be good because Ash Carter is not a guy who will push back on the generals.”  

This staffer also pointed to Carter’s commitment to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. As the deputy secretary of defense, for example, Carter once had the president’s helicopter, Marine One, land at the mall entrance at the Pentagon in order to inspect the president’s secure communications and to make sure they would work in the event of a nuclear war, this staffer said.

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which opposes increased spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, said Carter “is in a tough spot.” Cirincione added: “He inherits plans for spending $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons over the next 30 years but not the money to pay for them. He doesn't want to cut the contracts, but he can't afford them either."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net