WASHINGTON — Making Ashton B. Carter the new Secretary of Defense may be one of President Barack Obama’s least polarizing decisions. Even in an era of hyper-partisan politics, Carter was still confirmed on Feb. 12, 2015 by a Senate vote of 93 to five.
To those who have been watching Carter since December 2014 when Obama named him to replace former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Carter’s confirmation came as no surprise. In fact, because he was the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Hagel, Carter’s ascension was a natural step up.
Carter has been deeply involved with national security. He was the Clinton administration’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. Now under the Obama administration, he has outlasted both of his predecessors: serving as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics under former Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Deputy Secretary of Defense under Hagel. When he was not directly involved with the Department of Defense, Carter held positions in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories.
Even in his writings, Carter characterized himself as a no-nonsense pragmatist. As long as they could fulfill their objectives, Carter could care less if “effective systems for accountable decision making” were “unglamorous.” His ideal president was a “manager of means.” Consistently, he valued the need to be “dedicated and persistent” and the willingness “to change the status quo” if changing it would get the job done. Instead of dwelling on problems, Carter advocated making any inevitable damage “manageable” and securing “concrete geopolitical advantages.”
His pragmatism has led him to criticize the Pentagon. In a 2001 essay, Carter rebuked the Pentagon for not paying attention to “the organization and management of the national security system.” In 2010, he bluntly admitted “[the Pentagon’s]practices for buying such services [were]even less effective than for buying weapons systems.” Thirteen years later, Carter again criticized the Pentagon’s “notoriously slow bureaucracy.” The Pentagon of the future must have institutions to rapidly adjust to changing circumstances and leadership that focuses on “specific threats and capability gaps.”
Carter’s views have caused some to see him as a reformer. Though he ultimately doubts that the Pentagon can be successfully reformed, author Fareed Zakaria still commended Carter for recognizing the need to “rein in [the]Pentagon.” The Associated Press noted that Carter’s sales pitch was to seek “better use of taxpayer dollars” on defense spending. An article by Agence France-Presse stated that some analysts said Carter was “uniquely qualified to reform the Pentagon machine.”
Carter’s pragmatism also has attracted controversy and criticism from both inside and outside the White House.
Known as a “hard-charging intellectual,” Carter is less likely than Hagel to acquiesce to White House demands if they conflict with what he views as best for national security. One of the chief complaints against Hagel was that he was susceptible to White House micromanagement. Knowing Carter would not be as submissive, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest had to clarify that decisions such as the possible decision to supply arms to Ukraine “will be made by the commander-in-chief.”
Carter’s pragmatism has also tended to prevent him from ruling out military action, even in very delicate cases. In a 2003 interview with PBS, Carter stated his willingness to use force to provoke North Korea into an ultimately suicidal war that would cause “many, many tens of thousands of deaths: American, South Korean, North Korean, combatant, non-combatant.” Three years later, Carter doubled down on his calls for preemptive action and added that “[t]he Bush administration [had]unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of ‘preemption.’” The same doctrine helped lead America into the Iraq War.
In any case, Carter’s pragmatism has been an integral component of his conduct and will most likely continue to be so as he confronts the leading international issues today.
– Dean Delasalas
Sources: PBS, Raw Story, Salon, U.S. Department of Defense, Washington Times, WJLA
Carter’s Referenced Writings: America’s New Strategic Partner?, Catastrophic Terrorism: Tackling the New Danger, If Necessary, Strike and Destroy, Keeping America’s Military Edge, The Pentagon Is Serious About Saving Money, Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need, Should Cost Management: Why? How?
Photo: Air Combat Command