We Have a Defense Secretary. But Will He Be Allowed to Lead?

I applaud the nomination of Ashton Carter to be secretary of defense. He is hyper-smart, passionate about defense and national security policy, knows the Pentagon like the back of his hand, is tough and assertive, and he will be a forceful participant in debates about foreign, defense and national security policy. He is, in short, everything that Chuck Hagel was not and is not. (Incidentally, recall that a whole host of people thought that the Hagel nomination would be a wonderful thing because it would stick it to Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Not that I ever expect such people to have the class and decency to admit that it was a bad idea to support a presidential nomination merely because it would spite the Israelis, but maybe from now on, it would be better to have more substantive and intellectually defensible reasons to support or oppose a particular presidential nomination, no?)

So I hope that Carter will be an effective defense secretary and if he is, then I also hope that the next president of the United States–whoever he or she may be, and from whatever party he or she may be–will keep Carter around and empower him to make serious and consequential changes in defense and national security policy that will be to the advantage of the United States.

But as I have written before, we have reasons to be concerned that the next defense secretary is being set up to fail–just like the last defense secretary (who unlike Carter, had no serious intellectual abilities to bring to bear at his job)–was being set up to fail. There are still no indications whatsoever that the Obama administration will allow its next defense secretary to actually exercise line responsibility over his cabinet department. There are still no indications whatsoever that foreign, defense and national security policy will no longer be run out of the White House–a policy that has led to confusion, the disempowerment of cabinet officials, and general disaster. In short, there are still no indications that Ashton Carter will be allowed by the Obama administration to live up to his potential.

I hope that I am wrong about this. Carter should have been nominated as defense secretary in order to succeed Leon Panetta, and perhaps with this nomination, President Obama is implicitly admitting that he needs to change the way in which defense and national security policy is being managed by devolving power back to cabinet secretaries. Perhaps as well, Carter’s combination of brilliance, savvy and knowledge of the Pentagon will help him maneuver around the White House, much as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were able to do. But while Carter’s nomination is certainly praiseworthy, it is also tragic. He is a superbly qualified, intellectually talented, public-spirited public servant who is possibly being asked to work in conditions that will not be conducive for his success.