President Obama has nominated Ash Carter to be his new secretary of defense. Carter would be a good pick in any administration. His bio gives an indication of his experience and talents (I’m probably just brainwashed to believe that anyone who double-majors summa cum laude in medieval history and physics, then follows it up with a doctorate in theoretical physics while a Rhodes Scholar, is a genius). Like many in D.C., I’ve met Carter; I sat next to him once at a dinner for the Japanese prime minister, and he asked some pretty penetrating questions about some pieces I had written about airpower.
In a post on the Corner right after Chuck Hagel was fired, I mused that the president could pick Hagel’s successor from one of two D.C. types: Homo politicus or Homo bureaucraticus. I put Carter in the latter camp, but on reflection, I would have done better to designate him a third species: Homo technocraticus. He’s certainly not a politician, but neither is he the typical D.C. bureaucratic butterfly, flitting from position to position regardless of talent. Carter is a serious technocrat, having focused widely on defense science and technology issues. Yet having had two major management posts in the Pentagon (as deputy defense secretary, from October 2011 to December 2013, and as assistant secretary during the Clinton years), Carter appears to be a more than capable bureaucrat.
The question for him is the same one that animated the post-firing Hagel chatter: What kind of secretary of defense can he really be in an Obama administration? Not being a politician, Carter isn’t going to be a Team of Rivals–type personality who will challenge the president; yet, neither is John Kerry right now, nor was Hillary Clinton much during her term. From everything we can divine, this is an administration only slightly less suspicious of its own senior officials than of its Republican opponents, keeping decision-making a tightly guarded process in the offices of éminence grise Valerie Jarrett and chief of staff Denis McDonough. Carter, however, brings serious intellectual firepower to his position, and he cannot be lightly dismissed when offering opinions. Whether Jarrett can tame him is a different matter, and so far, she seems not to have failed with anyone else.
That then raises the issue of policy areas where Carter could make a mark. There are two: strategy and acquisition reform. Global strategy is this administration’s weak point, with a White House reeling from an ineffective approach to the Islamic State, seeking to avoid any risk by confronting Russia over Ukraine, and continuing to put faith in nuclear negotiations with Iran (despite following the same failed script it followed in North Korea). Reports indicate that Hagel was let go for starting to push back against Obama’s tepid Islamic State strategy, but that is just one part of a much larger incoherence in U.S. global strategy. Even Carter might not be able intellectually to corral these issues and come up with a comprehensive approach; but more important, there is little indication the White House wants him to. Rather, the West Wing is looking for a competent manager, which they felt Hagel was not.
That leads into the second area where Carter could make a difference: Pentagon management, and specifically acquisition strategy, which has long been one of his key interests. This is a technocratic issue, albeit a crucial one, and the type of problem that technocrats like Carter excel in solving. Few outside D.C. (and few inside) have a real feel for just how messed up the Defense Department’s acquisition strategy is, and for how many millions of dollars are wasted through inefficient procurement processes, constantly shifting weapons-development programs, and lack of oversight of defense contractors. Unless the U.S. military wants to continue down the road of having just a handful of really amazing, multibillion-dollar weapons, something has to be done to bring costs down, keep schedules on track, and hold contractors accountable.
Some argue that Carter did little in his turn as deputy defense secretary to change the acquisition process, but that may be selling him short. First, the problem is a generational one, and may even be beyond fixing short of surgery so radical that no one in Washington will contemplate it. Second, Carter was not the boss before, but will now call the shots, though whether he can break through the iron ring of vested interests in the Pentagon is doubtful. Even if he does pull off the impossible, just two years in the top job may not be long enough to reset programs like the F-35, the Gerald Ford–class aircraft carrier, or the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine. What Carter would have needed was at least a full four-year term with all his own people in place from the beginning. He has good support in Jamie Morin, the new director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, but that is just one part of a larger puzzle that includes acquisition officials in all the services, as well.
This is a particularly sensitive time for America’s security policy. Global disorder is undeniably growing, and yet our military is trying to recover from nearly a decade and a half of combat while shrinking in size and reshaping itself for a more budget-constrained future. It might not be such a big deal for a smaller country, but it is a wrenching process for the world’s only superpower. The Obama administration has made a great deal of poor personnel decisions. Ash Carter is not one of those. The question is, will the White House let him do the job it has just picked him for?
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.