To replace Hagel, the White House has reportedly picked Ashton Carter, a theoretical physicist and former Harvard prof who served as deputy defense secretary under both Hagel and Panetta. Andrew Prokop provides more context:
Carter has a great deal of mainstream and bipartisan credibility, and he’s clearly well-equipped to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy. But he’s not particularly known for strategic thinking about the Middle East, so his selection would likely indicate that the White House will continue to center its foreign policy development process in the National Security Council rather than the Cabinet.
Carter is respected by many on the right: he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to be Panetta’s deputy in 2011, Sen. John McCain has called him “a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant,” and conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin wrote in 2013 that Carter’s appointment could “add some muscle to an administration that has too rarely backed up its rhetoric with action.”
This could give him a good chance at winning approval from the GOP-controlled Senate, and McCain’s Armed Services Committee, quickly next year. However, he may face some criticism from liberals for his hawkish leanings on certain issues — for instance, in 2006, he co-wrote an op-ed calling on the Bush administration to strike and destroy the long-range missile North Korea was then constructing.
McCain and other Republicans say they could see Carter as an ally of sorts, but they doubt the administration will grant him any more independence than his predecessors enjoyed:
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.”
That’s roughly Ed Morrissey’s take as well:
That makes sense on a political level, and perhaps an organizational level as well. It won’t help what really ails the Obama administration’s defense policy, though, which is that it’s being controlled by his inner circle rather than truly independent policymakers. Unlike George Bush’s decision to bring in Robert Gates in 2006, which helped change the strategy in Iraq and the approach to national-security policy, Carter’s appointment will mean the same incoherence that allowed the White House to float Johnson’s name last week as a trial balloon will continue. He won’t have the political clout to force an independent point of view within Obama’s inner circle, and Carter will just be another chess piece to sacrifice later when more failure results.
Loren Thompson calls Carter an inspired choice:
If cabinet members were picked purely on the basis of their resumes, Ash Carter would a compelling candidate for Secretary of Defense. The one facet of his credentials that does not come through in a resume or curriculum vitae, though, is that he is a smooth political operator — engaging, agreeable, and a good listener (which helps a lot on Capitol Hill). After decades of learning everything worth knowing about national defense, Carter usually finds himself the smartest person in the room and thus doesn’t have to strain to prove his expertise.
In other words, normal people tend to like Ash Carter — which is probably not something you could say about most defense wonks (or medieval history majors). That quality is very important in navigating Washington’s political culture, where relationships are crucial to success.
The Bloomberg View editors like Carter too:
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.
Gopal Ratnam and colleagues look over what the new SecDef will have on his plate:
Carter will take charge of a Pentagon in the midst of an intensifying battle against the Islamic State. The administration has flatly ruled out the use of ground troops to fight the group in Syria and Iraq, but months of American and allied airstrikes have done little to weaken the militants or dislodge them from the vast areas of the two countries that they control. Carter will also have to figure out how to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan without allowing the Taliban to retake the country’s major cities amid a sharp spike of attacks inside Kabul. Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as China’s assertive moves in its territorial waters, will also pose difficult and challenging questions for Carter and his staff.