Obama Pentagon Pick Seeks to Avoid Rancor That Drove Away Hagel – Businessweek
President Barack Obama made one thing clear in choosing his fourth Defense secretary: He gives the orders, his military advisers follow them.
Obama has run through three Defense secretaries in six years, and they’ve all griped about micromanagement from the White House. Ashton Carter, the former Pentagon official whom Obama is nominating to be the next, has watched it happen.
So Carter offered words of deference for the commander-in-chief at the announcement ceremony yesterday — and capped his remarks with an on-camera bear hug for Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser.
“I accepted the president’s offer to be nominated for secretary of defense because I respected his leadership,” said Carter, 60, a seasoned defense official with a background in budgeting and weapons systems.
Tensions between presidents and military advisers aren’t new. Abraham Lincoln fumed during the U.S. Civil War over Major General George McClellan’s reluctance to attack. “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time,” Lincoln said.
White House-Pentagon friction has been a particularly persistent theme in the Obama administration.
The current Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, who announced his resignation on Nov. 24, has had a frosty relationship with the president’s staff. He didn’t attend yesterday’s ceremony — even after the White House announced that he’d be there.
Hagel was so constrained by White House aides, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, that he didn’t push back when they began to push him out. His predecessors, Republican Bob Gates and Democrat Leon Panetta, both wrote in recent memoirs that they were disturbed by the degree of White House intrusion into military operations.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest underscored the power dynamic a day before the announcement of the nominee.
“Whoever that person is, they’ll understand what the chain of command is,” Earnest said, declining then to name Carter.
Obama praised Carter as “one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders. Earlier in his administration, the president said, Carter ‘‘was by my side navigating complex security challenges.’’
Carter spent more than two years as the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian leader under Panetta and then Hagel. Before that, he served under Gates as the military’s top weapons buyer.
In his new role, Carter won’t bring with him the independent political power base of his three immediate predecessors. Gates came to the job as a former Central Intelligence Agency director and defense secretary under President George W. Bush and Panetta as a former CIA director, White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and onetime House Budget Committee chairman. Hagel is former Republican senator from Nebraska.
Carter pledged to Obama ‘‘my most candid strategic advice. And I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice.”
Hagel said his departure after less than 21 months as U.S. Defense chief was “a mutual decision” between him and Obama.
“There were no major differences in any major area,” Hagel told reporters yesterday. “Leadership comes with a responsibility of also knowing when it is probably a good time to let someone else come in.”
After skipping the White House ceremony yesterday, Hagel released a statement praising Carter as “a renowned strategist, scientist, and scholar with expertise spanning from international security and counterterrorism to science, technology, and innovation.”
‘Release the Lions’
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 for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he has been a faculty member. “You never know when they are going to release the lions and have you torn apart for the amusement of onlookers.”
The nomination is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Several Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, said earlier this week they didn’t see any hurdles for Carter.
While Carter never served in the military, he has a lengthy resume in civilian defense posts and related academic positions, often working at the intersection of military policy, technology and weapons systems.
A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he received a doctorate in theoretical physics, Carter’s involvement in defense policy dates back to Cold War-era debates over the MX missile system. He joined a team of scientists analyzing the missile system for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1979, according to his biography.
He went from there to the systems analysis department in the Defense secretary’s office, which he described as the successor group to the “whiz kids” that Robert McNamara recruited to help modernize military strategy during the 1960s.
Since then, he has mostly cycled between positions in government and academia, serving as chairman of the Kennedy School’s International and Global Affairs faculty.
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 handled the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
He also was closely involved in a U.S. standoff with North Korea in 1994 over its nuclear weapons program.
“I spent much of that year believing that the odds of a horribly destructive war were not less than 50-50,” Carter wrote in the autobiography.
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 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US) Carter 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, he 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 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.”
Since 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 its website.
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