Ashton Carter: Next in Line as SecDef

Although the rollout was messy, and the official announcement is still pending, the White House has settled on Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I have a piece just up at The Daily Caller explaining Carter’s long list of challenges: 

He will be expected to manage several ongoing wars, at a time when the public wants to kill bad guys without necessarily using U.S. ground troops to do it. Carter must also oversee numerous major new and costly weapons programs (especially nuclear weapons) in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. The Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the costs of the wars) remains near historic highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and personnel expenses are likely to remain high despite some reductions in the numbers of men and women serving in uniform. The just-released draft budget implements modest cost controls, but The Military Times reports that these “are likely to irritate outside advocates who pushed against any pay and benefits cuts.” Absent significant reform, military pay and benefits will place additional downward pressure on both new weapon R&D and normal operations and maintenance.

On top of all this, the rancor surrounding Hagel’s departure has shone new light on the White House’s tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the West Wing. It is reasonable to ask “Why would anyone want this job?”

Most of the piece focuses on the presumption that Carter will be more hawkish than his predecessor, based on his earlier support for a harder line against Iran (.pdf) and his call, in 2006 with William Perry, for so-called “preemptive” military strikes against North Korea.

But, as I explain, the hawks’ celebration might be premature. Hagel wasn’t unequivocally anti-war, and Carter will have his hands full with the wars U.S. troops are already fighting, plus the looming budgetary train-wreck. And those aren’t the only things constraining the new SecDef’s supposed hawkishness. Americans harbor deep doubts about replaying the past decades’ nation-building adventures in Iraq and Syria, and the nation’s senior military officer – JCS Chair Martin Dempsey – seems to share at least some of their concerns.

I conclude:

Given all of the things on Ash Carter’s plate, a logical division of labor would put him in charge of managing the Pentagon’s budget, and Dempsey in the forefront explaining how these resources should be deployed. The hawks in and out of Congress are reluctant to criticize the judgment of uniformed military personnel, and Americans remain wary of sending U.S. troops into the middle of distant civil wars. If Dempsey advises against greater U.S. involvement in such wars, he might have a bigger impact on the course of U.S. foreign policy than any of his civilian counterparts – Ashton Carter included.

Read the whole thing here.