Picking a new secretary of defense is one of the most important decisions President Barack Obama will make in his second term. We are not in peaceful times, so the person in charge of America's Wars is a pretty powerful one. Enter Ashton Carter, the former No. 2 at the Pentagon who is likely to be nominated to lead the Defense Department, according to reports Tuesday.
Carter emerges from a dwindling field of potential replacements for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who resigned last week amid growing tensions with Obama's national security team over an array of issues, including the administration's Syria policy and delays in transferring detainees from Guantánamo Bay. Although Carter was always in the running, he rose to the top of the short list after other potential nominees—including Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, and US Senator Jack Reed—took their names out of contention. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was also rumored to be on the list of possibilities, but was apparently ruled out over concerns that trying to get him confirmed in a Republican-controlled Senate would have been too much trouble.
So at this point, it looks like Carter will be the president's choice, which means the 60-year-old theoretical physicist will likely play a large role in shaping how the world remembers the Obama administration.
But who is this guy? Besides being a winner by default, he's basically a genius—a former Harvard professor who is an expert in nuclear policy, and who graduated from Yale University, summa cum laude, with degrees in physics and medieval history. (He also got his PhD in theoretical physics from Oxford.) He has been training for the SecDef position for about two decades. Although Carter has no uniformed military service—typically a prerequisite for the job—he has marinated in the Pentagon bureaucracy for much of his career, first as an assistant defense secretary during the Clinton administration—he was responsible for disarming Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as nuclear nations, among other things—and then as deputy defense secretary under Obama.
According to The New Republic, Carter has "has advised nearly every major strategy group, research council, and governmental panel on issues of international security." From 2011 to 2013, he was the Pentagon's primary weapons purchaser, before resigning after being passed over for Hagel for the top job. Today, he co-directs the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard, which focuses on emerging international security threats.
What seems to be missing from Carter's résumé, though, is anything involving the Middle East. This is particularly interesting given that one of the main reasons Hagel resigned was that Obama didn't believe he was the right person to lead the US strategy against ISIS. While it's not fair to say that Hagel fucked up, he was selected to oversee the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, and subsequently implement Obama's plan to shrink the US military and reduce defense spending to its lowest levels in decades. "They chose Hagel for a job that just turned out to be very different from what was expected with the rise of ISIS," a former Obama national security aide told NBC News.
But it's not clear what Carter will bring to the table that Hagel could not, aside from a closer relationship to Obama's inner circle, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice. And his relative lack of experience in the Middle East means that the White House's strategy for fighting ISIS will likely remain in the Oval Office.
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