Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, on March 1, 2013.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Obama taps Ash Carter for Pentagon

Last week, President Obama surprised much of the political world, asking for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation. This morning, Obama surprised no one, choosing Ash Carter has Hagel’s successor.
President Obama will nominate Ashton Carter for U.S. defense secretary Friday, according to a White House official. He will replace outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel, who resigned under pressure last week.
 
Carter joined the Obama administration in 2009 as a top arms buyer, eventually rising to be the Pentagon’s second-in-command from 2011 to 2013. There he managed the Pentagon’s budget, its 2.4 million employees and rose within the ranks of the administration. The 59-year-old resigned in late 2013 after being passed up for the defense secretary job. Most recently, Carter has worked as a senior executive at the Markle Foundation, where he has focused on technology and the economy. Carter is also a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University.
As we talked about briefly the other day, Carter is a real policy wonk with a fascinating background. For example., he’s a Rhodes Scholar with degrees in theoretical physics and medieval history, along with an expertise in nuclear policy.
 
That said, Carter would hardly arrive at the Pentagon as a rookie. He was Under Secretary of Defense for more than two years in Obama’s first term, followed by a stint at Deputy Secretary of Defense for two more years, during which time he managed the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations.
 
If the White House hoped to avoid a bruising confirmation fight, Carter is arguably the smartest – and safest – or all possible choices. He’s already been through the Senate confirmation process twice, and was approved with unanimous support in both cases. Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has sung Carter’s praises, describing him as “a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant.”
 
Barring some shocking revelation, Carter seems very likely to earn Senate support early next year.
 
That said, as the process unfolds, there will be one specific thing I’ll be eager to hear more about: the time Carter called for a preemptive strike on North Korea.
 
To be sure, Carter has been a prolific observer. According to a fact-sheet distributed by the White House, he’s authored or co-authored 11 books and more than 100 articles on physics, technology, national security, and management.
 
But there’s one piece in particular that raised eyebrows. In 2006, Carter and former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote this Washington Post op-ed on North Korea’s nuclear program. It read in part:
[I]f North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. […]
 
Diplomacy has failed, and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature. A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea even further. The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles.
Now, to provide a little context to this, for much of the Bush/Cheney era, North Korea was largely seen as a national security afterthought. Carter, who’s invested much of his career in nuclear policy, was mortified as Kim Jong-il moved forward with his nuclear-weapons program – up to and including the test of a long-range missile – which generated very little interest from the Republican administration in the U.S., which was focused on its two concurrent wars in the Middle East, neither of which was going well at the time.
 
So, Carter tried to get the Bush White House’s attention.
 
Nearly a decade later, the op-ed doesn’t hold up especially well. As Max Fisher noted this morning, a preemptive strike wasn’t necessary given the feeble nature of North Korea’s long-range capabilities, and if the U.S. had been as aggressive as Carter recommended, such moves likely would have made the security threat worse, not better.
 
To be sure, I’m not suggesting that one op-ed should or will derail Carter’s nomination. On the contrary, I suspect senators won’t care that much at all (some Republicans might even like him more as a result of the 2006 piece).
 
But when hearings get underway, it seems like the sort of argument Carter should probably address in more detail. It’s something to keep an eye on.
 

Ashton Carter, Cabinet, Defense Department and Pentagon

Obama taps Ash Carter for Pentagon