Ashton Carter vows candid advice as defense secretary
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2014
WASHINGTON — Ashton Carter on Friday pledged to deliver candid military advice to the White House as it ended days of anticipation and officially nominated him as the next defense secretary.
It was the first indication from Carter, who must now be confirmed by the Senate, that he might take a stronger leadership role at the Pentagon than outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was pushed out after what many considered a mediocre two-year tenure.
If confirmed, Carter will be entering a difficult political situation in Washington and a raft of military issues abroad. President Barack Obama outlined his expectations for a new defense secretary during the announcement, saying Carter would focus on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and cutting defense spending.
“If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice and I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice,” Carter said.
He is trained as a theoretical physicist and has served in the Pentagon’s No. 2 position, been its chief weapons buyer and served in some form under 11 previous defense secretaries. But Carter has no experience in Congress or the uniformed military, meaning he would bring a different skill set than the outgoing secretary, a former senator and Vietnam vet.
Obama presented Carter as an old hand at the Pentagon and a friend to troops who championed sending more armored vehicles and body armor downrange.
“He is a reformer who has never been afraid to cancel old or inefficient weapons programs,” Obama said. “He knows the Department of Defense inside and out.”
The administration pushed Hagel out last month as it searches for a strategic footing. Hagel was widely seen as an administration yes-man often overshadowed by military brass, yet a steadfast public loyalty was not enough to maintain the president’s support.
Carter faces working with a White House that has been accused by prior defense secretaries of micro-managing defense issues while also searching for new strategies to deal with complex conflicts abroad.
Obama said he would expect Carter to handle the war effort in Iraq and Syria as a top priority.
The administration has called the Islamic State a major threat to the region and the United States, and the military has been bombing targets in both countries since August in a war it says will last years. Success of the complicated effort, which involves dozens of allies and various fronts, is still uncertain.
Carter also would inherit a controversial plan to create a proxy ground force out of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After expressing skepticism this fall, Congress is now poised next week to approve the program to train and equip vetted rebels, and push billions of dollars more into the Pentagon’s overseas war account.
Hagel struggled with the Obama war strategy and Carter will certainly face a challenge as the new face of the effort. Critics of the train-and-equip plan have pointed to various pitfalls such as a difficulty in getting the rebels to turn from Assad to fight Islamist extremists and the possibility of weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic State.
Obama also said Carter would also be shepherding a drawdown of Afghanistan operations — now our longest war.
That country’s fragile new government is threatened by internal power struggles and Taliban attacks are surging. In January, a two-year advisory and counterterrorism operation called Operation Resolute Support will replace the war, requiring about 9,800 troops to remain there, though that number too could change.
Carter would be expected to give key input to the administration as it tweaks plans in an effort to avoid the turmoil occurring in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
Outside of war strategy, successful defense secretaries often find a connection with rank-and-file troops. The president gave a nod to that Friday by mentioning Carter’s support of new protections against improvised explosive devices for those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Obama also said the military will be “necessarily leaner” in coming years and he expects Carter to make tough spending decisions. That will almost certainly mean unpopular cuts to troop benefits.
Congress is now considering a 2015 defense budget that reduces pay raises, housing allowances, health care coverage, and commissary funding. Lawmakers have warned will mean deeper cuts to benefits or a reduction in the military’s ability to fight wars.