Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter’s life tends to come in nice round numbers, a logical outcome for a brainy defense bureaucrat who has worked his way up the academic, corporate, and defense ladder one impressive step at a time. He was born 5 years after the Department he will now head, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, was created on the foundations of the then-160-year-old War Department. He had his PhD in Physics by the age of 25, apparently as a Rhodes Scholar. Already an Assistant Secretary of Defense during Clinton’s first term, he had been Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. His membership in high-powered advisory boards is lengthy and impressive as well. So one wonders, if Senator McCain’s gruff warning to Carter to prepare for “incessant micromanagement” on the part of the White House as Secretary of Defense is in reality unintentionally ironic. Isn’t Ashton Carter precisely the type of high-powered bureaucrat who actually has been doing all that incessant micromanaging?

While the White House might have ideas and initiatives on defense as it relates to domestic security and foreign policy, it is an area where there is not an abundance of expertise one suspects at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That means Obama’s advisors consulting with “experts”, and that means people like Ashton Carter. What manner of relationship Carter has had with Obama’s White House is not quite clear at the current time, but Carter’s resume suggests it is good, better than Hagel’s. In other words, Ashton Carter should know exactly what to expect when he is confirmed. That does not guarantee he will toe the White House line, whatever that happens to be. He is known to be fairly hawkish on matters like Iran. The real issue is whether he will see himself as a caretaker and administrator in the final 2 years of an administration in decline.

The answer to that question is that his own job will not let him. Defense is too vital, too volatile in the very nature of the responsibilities he has been charged with, to allow that. Try predicting what ISIS will be doing in the next year or two, for example. Try predicting what North Korea may or may not do and how China will respond. Try predicting what Iran’s nuclear ambitions will drive them to do, despite the slow-burn, do-little negotiations. But that exactly, and countless of other dangerous and unpredictable issues, will be Carter’s job, as well the more important tactical and strategic mission of designing and implementing responses. And here is where Senator McCain’s warning matters most. Ashton Carter should know by now exactly what he is getting into, but how successful he will be in convincing this White House to let his department implement robust responses is uncertain, especially because a robust response needs a coherent and committed foreign policy behind it that convinces voters at home and allies and rivals abroad. Ashton Carter will be reminded of that need more than a few times in his new job.

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