Ashton Carter's Pentagon Agenda

Dotting the i's, crossing the t's and analyzing our nuclear missile defense capabilities.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

So what kind of secretary of defense would best serve U.S. interests in the last two years of Barack Obama's presidency: a strong voice in the contentious policy debates over Islamic State, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia? Or a technocrat to focus on long-term Pentagon issues such as budgeting, force reduction and the so-called pivot to Asia?

With its expected nomination of Ashton Carter to replace Secretary Chuck Hagel, the White House has put an end to this debate: Carter's expertise, which is considerable, is more managerial than political. At any rate, by all accounts -- particularly those of Obama's former secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta -- the micromanagement of policy by the president and his closest advisers leaves little space for even a strong-willed Pentagon chief to make much difference.

Thus Carter seems like the right man for a job nobody else wanted. (Senator Jack Reed and Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, quickly took themselves out of consideration after Hagel was shown the door.)

If nothing else, Carter, who was the Pentagon's No. 2 until last December, will bring a sense of professionalism and competence that was lacking under Hagel. A theoretical physicist and nuclear researcher by training, Carter also knows his way around the Pentagon budget, which can be more elusive and beguiling than Vladimir Putin. Funding for the department has been more or less flat for the past three years, and it's likely that the military will have to husband its resources for decades to come. Carter, respected by both the civilian and military staffs in the Pentagon and by Congress, is a strong choice to guide the department to leaner times.

He's not on the right side of every procurement debate. He remains too fond of big-ticket items, such as the F-35 fighter, that need to be scaled back. He has been overly optimistic about the promise of saving money through smarter contracting. And in his stint as deputy secretary, he was timid about even minor, sensible changes in the biggest drain on military spending: the Tricare health plan and other benefits for veterans and their families.

On the plus side, Carter understands the importance of maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal, could play a strong role in shaping (and selling to Congress) a nuclear deal with Iran, and knows more about the reclusive and dangerous regime in North Korea than just about anyone outside the Hermit Kingdom.

Like Hagel, Carter will not be a dynamic cheerleader for administration policy. That is a good thing: Obama and his team need to sort out the strategic, political and legal contradictions in their approach to Islamic State, Syria and Iraq, and make a strong case to Congress and the public about what must be done. They can leave Carter, as the adult in the room, to worry about the Pentagon's long-term future.

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