By Simon McMurchie
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to replace departing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, recently testified before the Senate Armed Forces Committee in advance of a Congressional vote on whether or not to approve his nomination. Hagel stepped down after an unpopular two-year tenure, and in the Senate hearings, Carter presented himself as a strong candidate to support the President in a time of widespread political turmoil.
Carter previously served as the Deputy Defense Secretary from 2011 to 2013, and he has a long and decorated tenure in the Defense Department dating back to the Clinton era. After graduating from Yale (a double major in medieval history and theoretical physics) and attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he began a career in the U.S. government.
In Bill Clinton’s first term Carter was given primary responsibility for dealing with political ramifications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and can be given the majority of credit for managing the particularly difficult management of the Soviet nuclear program in the months and years after. Experience in dealing with a turbulent Eastern Europe should come in handy as Carter is tasked with managing the U.S.’s participation in the war in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s growing, aggressive international presence.
Still, the issue that the Armed Forces Committee was most concerned with (along with much of the American public) is the question of the administration’s response to the rapid rise of the so-called Islamic State.
Carter answered questions about the group just before the video of the vicious killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh was released, but even without the news, it was clear that Carter sees the so-called Islamic State as a serious threat to the United States. When asked by Senator John McCain to explain the White House’s strategy in dealing with the terrorist group, Carter made his intentions, as well as the President’s, clear.
“A strategy connects ends and means, and our ends with respect to ISIL needs to be its lasting defeat…. It’s important that when they get defeated, they stay defeated.” Though Carter went on to detail specifics in terms of political policy, it’s important to note the severity of his words.
Whereas his predecessor was often criticized for a perceived passivity and inability to enact large-scale change, Carter is known for being strong willed and hard working, traits that have earned him admiration across the political spectrum and make his nomination likely.
He also benefits from a deep understanding of the limitations and difficulties of working within the Department of Defense from a long career, while Hagel came from serving as a U.S. senator.
This hardline reputation makes him somewhat of an unlikely candidate for the White House to choose. Carter seems much more willing to throw the U.S.’s political weight around than a President whose foreign policy has been defined by a wait-and-see approach, and an extreme reluctance to commit the American military to any large-scale ground war since the failure of the surge in Afghanistan in 2010. The nomination of Carter may be a sign that the President is willing to begin a greater push against international threats as his presidency nears its end.
Regardless, Carter will certainly have a meaningful impact on American foreign policy. “He is pretty hard-nosed about what can be done with American power,” said William J. Perry, who worked with Carter during the Clinton administration. “He’s willing to use it when appropriate.
Photo Credit: Catlin Speak