New Defense chief ‘no shrinking violet’

Defense experts predict President Obama’s pick to lead the Pentagon will want to leave his own mark on a department where he has spent years working.

They say Ashton Carter, 60, will be a forceful personality, and that his years of experience and close ties with Republicans on Capitol Hill will allow him to stand up to the White House. 

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“What you'll get with Ash Carter is that he's no shrinking violet,” said Shawn Brimley, executive vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. “You want someone who's going to come to the table and express views and give the president the benefit of having strong national security advice."

Carter, 60, is widely respected by both Democrats and Republicans, say his supporters.

“Washington may be surprised,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “He will surely want to make a stamp on the Department of Defense and leave a legacy behind.”

The last several defense secretaries have complained that the National Security Council has sought to micromanage defense policy at the White House. 

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was rumored to have pushed out by the White House, in part because he did not forcefully present new ideas at National Security Council meetings. 

Media reports also said Hagel had riled the White House with a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that questioned the administration's strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and called for a sharper focus on Syrian leader Bashar Assad. 

A former Defense and White House official said allegations about micromanagement are overblown, but agreed that Carter will be a forceful personality that will push back against the White House. 

Eaglen said the concerns relayed in the memo were really between the military chiefs and the White House, and that won't change with Carter. 

“It's not about the man who holds this job,” she said.

Brimley also said there will always be “natural tension” between the Pentagon and the NSC.

But Carter, from his experience as the No. 2 leader at the Pentagon, “knows what the proper role of the chairman and the secretary is,” Brimley said.  

Carter's close relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill will be an asset, defense experts say, but it could also be another source of friction between him and the White House. 

The incoming chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornbery (R-Texas), have both praised Carter's nomination. All three men share acquisition reform at the Pentagon as a top priority. 

That could lead to friction over what to do with automatic spending reductions set for the Pentagon.

McCain and Thornberry have also expressed doubts over whether Carter will be calling the shots at the Pentagon. The two lawmakers have suggested that policy will be decided at the White House, regardless of who leads the Pentagon.

Still, Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said even if the White House seeks to be micromanaging, Carter will have more freedom than his predecessors.  

And the fact that the White House forced Hagel to resign could help Carter, he said.

“He will have the advantage that it's very difficult for the White House to simply fire two secretaries," he said.