After Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed both said “thanks, but no thanks” to the chance to become Barack Obama’s fourth defense secretary, the last top candidate standing was Dr. Ashton Carter, who previously served as Obama’s (2011-2013) Deputy Secretary of Defense and (2009-2011) Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and before that was Bill Clinton’s (1993-1996) Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs. His government experience is so prodigious that Harold Pollack at Wonkblog today praised him as the rare successful smart guy (his Ph.D. is in theoretical physics) who has really devoted himself to public service as opposed to helicoptering in to DC for a couple of years to burnish his CV.
Carter certainly has the credentials for the gig, but forgive me for having concerns about a guy who wins praises for his “firm grasp on strategic affairs” from people who used to work on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Carter seems disturbingly hawkish (John McCain supposedly loves the guy, so make of that what you will). He co-authored a column in 2006 calling on the Bush administration to start a war with North Korea over a planned North Korean long-range missile test, which is pretty freaking hawkish. His outside-government resume shows service at a lot of organizations that would really like to see America go to war with Iran, and he worked on a 2008 report for the Bipartisan Policy Center that Jim Lobe called “a roadmap to war with Iran,” because its policy recommendations would have made military strikes virtually inevitable without a complete Iranian capitulation on the question of uranium enrichment (which isn’t going to happen). He’s also (via Vox) been criticized by non-proliferation types for stridently defending America’s nuclear arsenal from potential budget cuts.
Ironically, one of the biggest knocks against the Obama national security/foreign policy team — its insularity and centralization within the White House — may prove to be a good thing in terms of limiting Carter’s input into strategy. While Carter may be more effective than the outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel was in terms of getting his views into the conversation, something Hagel wasn’t able to do, and in terms of delivering messages to the press, which Hagel was so bad at that he’d mostly ceded that role to JCS Chairman Dempsey, you have to think that it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to be able to shake the White House off of its course in terms of the nuclear talks with Iran. Anyway, if anybody is going to wreck the talks and put us on course for a war with Iran, it will be the new Congress, not the new Defense Secretary.