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Ashton Carter: Pentagon insider known to get things done

President Obama has picked Ashton Carter to be secretary of Defense. If confirmed, Carter will have to deal with wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria while tightening Pentagon spending and facing the new threat of cyber warfare.

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Ashton Carter listens in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington Friday as President Barack Obama announces he would nominate Carter for Secretary of Defense.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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In nominating Ashton Carter to be his fourth secretary of Defense, President Obama picked a veteran Pentagon operator who is little known outside Washington, but who has a reputation for getting things done.

“Ash is rightly regarded as one of our foremost national security leaders,” Mr. Obama said Friday at the White House ceremony. “He was at the table in the Situation Room, he was by my side in navigating complex security challenges.”

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In other words, Obama said, “He knows the Department of Defense inside and out.”

This is knowledge Mr. Carter will call upon mightily as he confronts a Pentagon that is facing increased pressure to rein in its expenses while fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and exploring complex new policy in realms like cyber warfare.

The mammoth defense budget is likely to be the biggest issue on Carter’s horizon, and the one to which he brings the most expertise with his “unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how,” as Obama described him. 

He was the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and was the No. 2 official – with the day-to-day responsibility for keeping US defense operations running smoothly – under former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The president’s 2016 budget request is due to Congress on the first Monday in February, which is also when sequester funding levels – which create an across-the-board mandatory cut to all Pentagon programs – are set to kick in once again. Though both Congress and the White House have denounced the “meat axe” approach to fiscal austerity, avoiding sequestration once again will be a considerable undertaking.

Carter also will have to face the issue of military compensation, a highly controversial prospect that could involve ratcheting down benefits and pay raises for US troops. Overseeing layoffs is another possibility as well, since Army and Marine Corps troop levels are slated to decrease in the months ahead, which may involve involuntary separations for some troops who have served multiple tours in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, there’s a greater push for a buildup of cyber expertise – a need cited by Obama as he stood beside Carter Friday – to confront a growing threat from countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea, as well as non-state actors. Recruiting that workforce in the face of high private sector demand – and getting it adequately trained to confront considerable cyber defense gaps, say analysts – will be one of Carter’s key challenges during what will be a short two-year term.

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The amount of time and energy he has to focus on budget and personnel issues around the building, however, may well hinge on what one of his predecessors (Donald Rumsfeld) liked to call “known unknowns.” 

Chief among these as Carter prepares for his confirmation hearing will be the US war against the Islamic State. For there to be any measure of success in that pursuit, the new secretary of Defense will need to press Iraq to form an inclusive government, supervise the tactical prowess of a new batch of Iraqi security forces, and launch a training program for so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels who will need to be convinced to focus their ire on the IS fighters, rather than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom they would rather see overthrown.

It’s no small order, and against these considerable challenges, one thing the Obama administration has in its favor is Carter’s considerable bipartisan support.

The White House press materials sent out Thursday evening emphasized that in Carter’s confirmation hearings for both Deputy and Under Secretary of Defense, he received a unanimous vote from Congress – a nod, the White House appears to recognize, to the support he’s going to need in the tough months ahead.