Published on TheHill.com
Every American should be grateful that Ashton Carter may likely be President Obama’s fourth Secretary of Defense in six years. Grateful not because he his eminently qualified to hold the post. As a trained physicist and former Deputy Secretary of Defense, amongst his many other qualities, he comes to the job as someone who has earned it. Naming Carter is as refreshing as if a career Foreign Service officer were named to be Secretary of State.
Another plus is that he’s been ‘round the barn a few times, which means every investigative agency within the American national security orbit has looked him over more than once, and no doubt, have even spoken to his proctologist, before clearing him at the highest levels.
So, if we should be grateful for Mr. Carter’s presence, but not because he is clearable and qualified for the post—somewhat unusual in an Administration not widely admired for this reason—then why should we be appreciative, perhaps indebted to the man?
Let us count the reasons.
First, he is willing to take the job. That might be a surprising statement to some, but when one considers that he’d be number four in a succession of highly-respected players (mostly), after Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, not to mention Chuck Hagel, he must believe he has the key to this president’s defense policy vault that others were not able to unlock. Let’s couple to that notion two of his predecessors have not been terribly complimentary about their former boss’s foreign policy/national defense acumen. And notice, we haven’t mentioned a few very well qualified generals who also learned what the bottom of a bus looks like.
Two. One would have to conclude that Mr. Carter is a humble man, though if true, that is a rare quality, indeed, within the I-495 Beltway. Humble? If it is true that he was passed over when Senator Hagel was chosen, we might ask ourselves about the motivation of an Administration to name an unloved Republican—neither well qualified by dint of management nor well-schooled in national defense arcana—when others better suited—like Carter?—were around. More recently, the name of Michele Flournoy was mentioned with more verve and interest than Mr. Carter’s when Hagel’s hasty exit became evident. Putting ego aside, therefore, must be one of Mr. Carter’s supreme strengths.
That last statement leads to reason number three. Mr. Carter will soon find out what Former Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry have found out over at State. In this Administration, you hold the horse and the title, but you don’t get to ride or touch the reins. Were Secretarys Gates and Panetta to be fully candid—putting their egos aside—they might confess that it was this president who served in their post and micro-imposed policy within their department. So, reason number three means that despite Mr. Carter’s strong experiential qualifications, he will have little so say about the direction of his troops.
As Americans, we are grateful for all of the above because a good man, humble but skilled, will take one for the team—and the team is us. We can only hope that despite his humility, his ego is sufficiently robust to apply his vast national defense knowledge to the benefit of American foreign policy and prepare well the foundation for a national defense re-build after 2016, if the voters make that possible.
Having said all of that, one can only wonder why Mr. Carter accepted the job. Whether he was dragooned, politically waterboarded, or what, we don’t know, but we’d have to conclude the pressures on him must have been enormous. In the Coliseum of this Administration, Carter will need every weapon available to fight the lions.
John P Warren is an author of fiction and a political observer with three decades of government and corporate experience. See www.thepinelandscompany.com.