Ashton Carter sworn in as new secretary of defense
WASHINGTON — Ashton Carter was sworn in Tuesday as President Barack Obama’s fourth defense secretary, assuming the post at a time when the administration’s policy against Islamic extremists is being widely criticized and the military brass are raising the alarm over the effects of budget cuts on America’s ability to cope with national security threats.
Vice President Joe Biden, who administered the oath of office at the White House, praised Carter as “a thinker and a doer” with a history of looking out for the troops and their families.
Carter previously served deputy secretary of defense, and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Biden noted Carter’s key role in getting thousands of Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles into the field to protect American servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices, which were responsible for the majority of U.S. casualties.
“He worked like the devil to get our troops [MRAPs]. And they’ve saved lives and limbs in countless numbers,” Biden said.
Biden also noted Carter’s low profile visits to meet with wounded troops and their families.
“Almost every Saturday, when no one was looking, Ash and [his wife] Stephanie were out at Walter Reed [with] no cameras, no publicity… They just became regulars,” Biden said.
In a message sent out to all Defense Department personnel, Carter laid out three priorities for his tenure:
◾ Helping the president make the best possible national security decisions for protecting the nation: “I have pledged to provide the president my most candid strategic advice… I will also ensure the president receives candid professional military advice.”
◾Ensuring the strength and health of the force: “I will do that by focusing on the well-being, safety, and dignity of each of you and your families… And I pledge to make decisions about sending you into harm's way with the greatest reflection and utmost care - because this is my highest responsibility as secretary of defense. “
◾Making wise budget decisions: “We must steer through the turmoil of sequestration, which imposes wasteful uncertainty and risk to our nation's defense. We must balance all parts of our defense budget so that we continue to attract the best people - people like you; so that there are enough of you to defend our interests around the world; and so that you are always well-equipped and well-trained to execute your critical mission.”
But analysts are skeptical that Carter will be able to have much of an impact on foreign policy or the long-term future of the Pentagon.
Obama’s other secretaries of defense have complained about White House micromanagement of military policy.
“I don’t see how Ash Carter can fix what Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates couldn’t,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
On the war front, Obama’s policy towards the Islamic State has been widely criticized as muddled and overly cautious. Obama has ruled out using American ground troops to fight the militants. Efforts to train and equip Iraqi forces and moderate Syrian rebels fight the Islamic State are moving slowly. And the administration has refrained from taking any action against President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, which has been attacking the rebels that the U.S. is trying to help.
“The level of effort we’re putting out is minimal, to put it mildly,” Donnelly said. “We’re measuring out airstrikes in eye drop measures. The president is unwilling to commit any boots on the ground to include spotters and targeters and stuff like that. I mean I don’t see how we’ll be able to retake [the Iraqi city of] Mosul, for example, without the kind of forward air controllers that would be effective… I also don’t think that Secretary Carter will be able to do much to influence the president.”
When it comes to getting the amount of money that Pentagon leaders believe they need to execute their missions and make needed investments for the future, analysts are skeptical that Carter will be able to deliver.
DOD is asking for $534 billion for fiscal 2016, but unless Congress changes the law, massive budget cuts known as “sequestration” will cap base defense spending at $499 billion. Beyond fiscal 2016, tens of billions of dollars will also be taken out of the Pentagon’s coffers each year through 2021.
Obama has proposed raising some taxes and removing the caps on both defense and non-defense spending, but the GOP appears unwilling to accept major spending increases for domestic programs.
“I am somewhat pessimistic” that there will be a budget deal that eliminates sequestration, Ryan Crotty, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters during a media roundtable last month. House Republicans are “going to want to find money for defense in non-defense. And that is so clearly anathema to the president and what he sees as his priorities.”
Another obstacle for Carter is that he won’t have much time in the job to make lasting changes. At the swearing in ceremony, Carter himself acknowledged that he is stepping into the position during the “fourth quarter” of Obama’s presidency.
Analysts noted that the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget request was already submitted before Carter took office.
“His first budget is really going to be the [fiscal] ‘17 budget. [And] we don’t know who the hell is going to be president then,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress.
Experts say Carter has been dealt a bad hand.
“He doesn’t have enough money to fund his programs or his department, and we’re losing all the wars that were in… It’s really a lousy situation to be in,” Donnelly said. “Under these circumstances, the best he can do is keep things from getting worse than they would be otherwise.”