Defense secretary pick Ashton Carter is primed for confirmation
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — For Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Pentagon, winning Senate confirmation may be the least of his worries.
He'll confront urgent concerns: automatic budget cuts slated to gouge the Pentagon's proposed $561 billion budget, countering Islamic State militants menacing Iraq and Syria, and what Sen. John McCain has called "incessant White House micro-management" of the military. Carter, 60, boasts a résumé of top Pentagon posts.
Carter is widely expected to win the approval of the Armed Services Committee, which takes up his nomination Wednesday. Its chairman, McCain, the Arizona Republican, hammered Chuck Hagel, the outgoing Defense secretary, at his confirmation hearing two years ago and voted against him. McCain, last month, went out of his way to praise Carter whom he hailed as "highly competent, experienced, hard-working and committed."
Carter will have to rely on his extensive experience inside the military and on Capitol Hill to succeed where Hagel failed. Robert Gates, the former Defense secretary, said nobody is better qualified than Carter for the job. Carter was the Pentagon's top weapons-buyer under Gates and then became deputy Defense secretary under Leon Panetta.
"I strongly support Ash's nomination," Gates told USA TODAY in an interview. "First of all, he knows the Pentagon very well. He's familiar with the people both military and civilian at senior levels. So there's no sort of start-up time with Ash. He's very familiar with the issues and the budgetary challenges.
"Ash also truly cares about the well-being of the troops. On every count, there isn't anybody that I think who would hold a candle to him as secretary for these next two years."
Carter and his transition team, including Army Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis, who advised Carter at the Pentagon, have been making office calls on Capitol Hill to win support. Carter left the Pentagon in 2013 as its No. 2 official.
From Day One, Carter will have to deal with the threat of sequestration, automatic cuts to the Pentagon's budget set for Oct. 1. The Joint Chiefs of Staff warned senators last week that the reductions, which affect every program but troops' compensation, could prevent the military from winning a war against a determined enemy.
"If we go back to sequestration, I think we're all in trouble, to be quite frank," Gates said. "There may be a dumber way to cut the defense budget, but I can't think of one. Because you're basically cutting the least important thing that you do and the most important thing that you do by the same amount."
As an example, Gates pointed to a decision he made in 2010 to move programs to support wounded troops and their families from temporary wartime supplemental spending packages to the Pentagon's permanent budget.
"The result of sequestration is those programs for our military families and wounded warriors are now being cut at same rate as the dumbest thing the department of Defense does," Gates said. "It's a travesty of sensible management and responsibility."
Obama has called for an end to sequestration, which would reduce military spending by $1 trillion over 10 years. He'll need cooperation from the Republican-led Congress to make it happen.
Carter will also inherit an air war in the Middle East, tensions with Russia and the Pentagon's ongoing attempt to shift resources to the Pacific. Airstrikes against militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, began in August after they captured Mosul in northern Iraq. The U.S.-led bombing campaign expanded to Syria in September and continues with more than $1.3 billion spent.
Carter has worked under 11 Defense secretaries, including the last three, and owns a doctorate in physics. He is "extremely adept at juggling" complex problems, said Jeremy Bash, who was Panetta's chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon.
In November, Gates and Panetta, appearing at a national security conference, complained about meddling in military affairs by White House staffers. Panetta talked about military decisions being made without adequate input from the Pentagon.
Bash, who is advising Carter, dismissed concerns about White House staffers' interference affecting Carter. Bash noted that Carter was chosen by Obama to be Panetta's deputy and has known Susan Rice, the national security adviser, for years.
"He will not hesitate to pick up the phone and call the White House if he has a concern," Bash said.
Carter's ties to the White House should serve him well, Gates said.
"The difference is that Ash has served more than five years with this administration," Gates said. "So he knows this president; this president knows him. He knows all the players at multiple levels. They will be familiar to him, and he to them. That'll make a big difference in terms of working relationships."
Bash and Gates also stressed Carter's commitment to getting troops the gear they need to survive in battle. Carter, as deputy secretary, helped shepherd efforts to speed specially designed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks to Afghanistan for protection against homemade bombs. He also took an interest in fielding bomb-sniffing dogs to keep troops on foot from stepping on booby traps.
In several interviews dating to 2009, Carter came across as focused and voluble. He would hold forth on training Labrador retrievers for combat and keeping assembly lines humming for MRAPs. Lewis, an attack helicopter pilot with combat commands in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a regular presence as a military adviser to Carter.
Carter has critics in Washington, including the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan, good-government group. They note that Carter has worked as a defense-industry consultant between his Pentagon jobs and also served on boards that advised the government on policies with potential to benefit his clients, such as Raytheon, a major contractor.
Carter's potential conflicts of interest should be raised at his hearing, said Michael Smallberg, an investigator for the organization. "That's an important issue," Smallberg said.
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