Ashton Carter on Deck for Secretary of Defense

December 3, 2014 Updated: December 3, 2014

WASHINGTON—Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is likely to be President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, according to administration officials. The department has had an uneasy relationship with the White House, but Carter’s ideas have influenced the administration’s foreign policy. He has set a workmanlike, thoughtful, and unselfish example.

He has called for America to build up its defenses against cyberwarfare, and it has. In his 1999 book “Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America” he proposed what is now called the pivot to Asia.

Carter and his co-author William J. Perry “argue that we should be paying far more attention to the A list of potential threats to U.S. interests—the possibilities that Russia could descend into chaos, China become hostile, and the like,” wrote David Gergen in a review of the book.

The Daily Beast called him America’s “Superhero of the Sequester.” This is why: In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, during those tragicomic days of February 2013, Carter said that the sequester would make it necessary to furlough employees one day a week, which would be a 20 percent pay cut for them. “I’ve promised that when that happens, I’m going to give back a fifth of my paycheck to the Treasury for those last seven months, if we have to furlough people.”

Expertise

He was deputy secretary of defense from October 2011 to December 2013. Before that, he worked in acquisitions as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from April 2009 until October 2011. He has management expertise and institutional knowledge.

He made the New Republic’s 2011 list of “Washington’s Most Powerful, Least Famous People.”

Carter was awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal four times. For his contributions to intelligence, Dr. Carter was awarded the Defense Intelligence Medal.

Good Job

At a 2013 Brookings Institution discussion on defense spending, senior fellow and director of research, foreign policy, Michael O’Hanlon said, “I think Ash Carter is really doing a pretty good job. He’s unfortunately living in an environment where he can’t really get any clear guidance from the policy lords because there’s no clear budget path ahead, and also Congress, you know, is frankly not doing as good of a job as past congresses at biting the bullet and making tough choices on Defense policy.”

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest stopped short of confirming the president’s decision, yet praised Carter effusively for serving “very, very ably” at the Pentagon previously and noted he had been easily confirmed by the Senate once before.

“This is an indication that he fulfills some of the criteria that we’ve discussed in the past,” Earnest said. “He is somebody who definitely deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government.”

Administration officials said Obama could announce his nominee as early as this week, though he was not expected to do so Tuesday. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the president’s decision-making process publicly.

A physicist with deep Pentagon experience, Carter moved to the top of the White House’s short list after several leading contenders pulled their names from consideration for what is typically a highly sought-after Cabinet spot. If Obama moves forward with Carter’s nomination and he is approved by the Senate, the 60-year-old would replace Chuck Hagel, who resigned as Pentagon chief last week under pressure from Obama.

Hagel’s resignation highlighted ongoing tensions between the White House and the Pentagon, where top officials have complained about West Wing micromanagement and a lack of clarity in Obama’s policymaking. Perhaps as a result of those concerns, Obama found himself with a far shorter list of possible replacements for Hagel than the White House may have expected.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was among those considered for the Pentagon post, but told the White House he’d rather stay put, according to people familiar with the process. Michele Flournoy, one of Obama’s top choices, quickly took her name out of contention, in part because of concerns over the tight rein the White House has tried to keep on the Defense Department. And Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and West Point graduate, also made clear within hours of Hagel’s resignation that he wasn’t interested.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said he was informed Tuesday morning that Obama was to nominate Carter and that he backs the expected nomination. An Inhofe aide later said the senator had based his comments on press reports.

“I support it very strongly,” Inhofe said of Carter’s probable nomination. “I’m very pleased he is going to be our secretary of defense. I can’t imagine that he’s going to have opposition to his confirmation.”

Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman said that as Obama approaches the end of his presidency, the Cabinet post is “not particularly desirable” for anyone with broader political ambitions.

“It’s very unlikely you will get political visibility or credit for being the secretary,” said Cordesman, who works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are just too many problems and uncertainties.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.