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What Was Said and Unsaid During Ashton Carter’s Nomination for Secretary of Defense

President Obama nominated Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel to become his next secretary of defense. The announcement ceremony — normally a staid affair — was notable.

by Ari Ratner
Dec 5 2014, 8:26pm

Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

On Friday morning, President Obama nominated Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel to become his next secretary of defense. The announcement ceremony — normally a staid affair — was notable both for what was said and for what was left unsaid.

Flanked by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Carter — who has previously served in the Obama Administration both as the Pentagon's second-in-command and earlier as its chief weapons buyer — told the president directly that "if I am confirmed for this job, I pledge to offer you my most candid strategic advice and I pledge that you will receive equally candid military advice." He delivered the line while turning directly to the president.

After years of criticism that the Obama White House has "micromanaged" the Pentagon, the line was telling. Carter, it seems, does not intend to be a "yes man." And while Carter's remarks were almost certainly vetted by the White House, the president — who was clearly in a good mood, likely in no small part because of Friday morning's very positive jobs report— looked to be ever-so-slightly taken aback by Carter's directness.

Also notable was the absence of incumbent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was not at the ceremony and was barely mentioned by either the president or Carter.

The White House has had an increasingly difficult relationship with Hagel, whose departure has been variously described as "mutual" or "forced." By all accounts, Hagel and Carter also had an uneasy relationship. In many respects, they are a study in contrasts.

Hagel's political background — he was previously a moderate Republican senator from Nebraska — has become increasingly common among the secretary of defense position. At the same time, Hagel was the first secretary of defense to have been an enlisted combat veteran — he was wounded twice while serving in the Vietnam War.

Hagel, however, had limited experience in running large bureaucracies — even as much of his tenure has been spent trying to modernize the Pentagon bureaucracy, better integrate it with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and otherwise serve the needs of the troops, including by initiating a series of measures to crack down on an epidemic of military sexual assault.

Carter, in contrast, has never served in uniform. But he has deep experience in running the day-to-day operation of the Pentagon. Passed over as secretary for Hagel when previous secretary Leon Panetta retired in February 2013, Carter in fact managed much of the department for Hagel until he left government in December 2013. Carter has likewise staked himself out as an expert in reforming the Pentagon, publishing a blueprint for "Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need."

Hagel and Carter, moreover, come to the job with different relationships with the White House — and with Congress.

Despite being an early supporter of President Obama, Hagel was largely an outsider to the White House's inner circle of national security staffers. As a moderate Republican who supported President Obama, Hagel inspired the ire of many of his former Republican colleagues on the Hill who nearly torpedoed his confirmation and whose confidence he never fully regained.

Despite the brief tough message at today's ceremony, the event was mostly a love fest. Carter has close ties to the White House after having served years in the administration, and is seen as a trusted advisor.

"Washington is full of people who talk about outside-of-the box threats like cyber security, but Ash Carter is one of the few who actually understands the issues inside and out"

Because he is seen as a technocrat, Carter ironically enough has better relationships in Congress, especially among Republicans. Incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee John McCain has even praised Carter this week after he was rumored to be President Obama's nominee. Carter is expected to sail through the confirmation process.

Carter will certainly need the support of all the allies he can get to manage the Pentagon as it goes through a series of challenges. The department must bring the war in Afghanistan to a close and re-focus over the long-term away from the Middle East and South Asia to the challenge of a rising China — all against the backdrop of declining budgets.

At the same time, Carter must deal with a resurgent Russia, now seriously threatening the European security order for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The Pentagon is also embroiled in another hot war against the Islamic State, as American policy towards Syria remains complex.

Indeed, Hagel's disagreement with the president on his Syria policy may have been what ultimately ruptured his relationship with the White House. Hagel's predecessor Leon Panetta likewise criticized the White House for its Syria policy, as has former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Carter's views on Syria are not intimately known, but if anyone can square the circle on Syria between the White House, the Pentagon, and Middle East, it may be him, as he is widely regarded as one of the smartest minds in the defense community.

"Washington is full of people who talk about outside-of-the box threats like cyber security, but Ash Carter is one of the few who actually understands the issues inside and out," Michael McNerney, a former Pentagon official and expert on cyber security, told VICE News. "He knows both the technology and the policy, and he surrounds himself with the smartest people out there. The Defense Department will be lucky to have him at the helm at a critical time for our nation's defense."

A Rhodes scholar with a Doctorate in Theoretical Physics from Oxford, Carter also has degrees in Physics and Medieval History from Yale — he wrote senior theses on the Latin writings of 12th century Flemish monks and on quark theory. Carter has since taught at MIT, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Stanford.

He has decades of experience in the defense community. Carter became right-hand man to Secretary William Perry, widely regarded one of the most successful defense secretaries in the post-war era, and had earlier worked in Pentagon under President Carter and President Reagan.

Throughout his career, Carter has long focused on unconventional or difficult threats, warning of the threat of catastrophic terrorism before 9/11. He pushed for speedy deployment of MRAPS (Mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles) to counter the threat of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers came to refer to him as "the Deliverer." More recently, he has been focused on cyber security.

Expect Carter to remain in the defense secretary position for the remainder of the Obama Administration. As his fourth secretary of defense, Obama has already hit the presidential record high held also by Truman and Nixon.

And if Hillary Clinton runs and is elected in 2016, we could see him remain in the position, as the two are reportedly close.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel Being Told to Step Off. Read more here,

Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner