12/05/2014 05:56 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

With Ashton Carter Nominated as Defense Secretary, Business as Usual


President Obama has announced his nominee to replace Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. His choice -- Ashton Carter -- had served the Obama administration previously as the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (from April 2009 to October 2011), and as Deputy Secretary of Defense (from October 2011 to December 2013). Mr. Carter, who had also served both President Clinton (as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy) and President Bush (where he sat on several defense advisory boards), is no stranger to the national security issues and policies of the day, and the political realities that serve to shape them.

Therein lies the rub. While on paper the resume of Ashton Carter is quite extensive, and his list of accomplishments impressive, the true measure of a person is often revealed not through information that has been carefully culled for the purpose of self-promotion, but rather in words offered up in an unguarded manner, where a more accurate impression of an individual's guiding principles and philosophy might be discerned. In the case of Ashton Carter, one such moment occurred on December 14, 2005, at the 36th IFPA-Fletcher Conference on National Security and Policy, held in Washington, DC.

"I was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq on the weapons of mass destruction grounds, and so I of the people who was 'totally wrong' about what Iraq actually had in the arena of weapons of mass destruction," Ashton Carter told the audience assembled in the auditorium of the Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel. Mr. Carter was unapologetic about this error, and defended his position by paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld, stating that "when we have uncertainty or lack of data, we have no alternative in the weapons of mass destruction arena but to err on the safe side." He went on to use the example of the so-called "missile gap" of the 1950's to further his case that sometimes decisions need to be made -- in the case of the "missile gap", a massive, unilateral escalation of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) production and deployment by the United States -- in the face of uncertainty (here Ashton Carter declared the United States did not know, at the time, either the "size or shape" of the Soviet ICBM threat it faced.)

Ashton Carter was wrong on both counts. There was no "uncertainty of data" when it came to Donald Rumsfeld's vision of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, but rather a deliberate distortion of available data to push an agenda whose endgame, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, was a foregone conclusion -- a clear-cut case of policy driving intelligence. The "missile gap" of the late 1950's and early 1960's was similarly constructed on fears generated from deliberately misleading information, prompting the deployment of hundreds of American Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBM's. The Soviet threat at the time consisted of three to five obsolete SS-6 missiles, a fact investigated by repeated U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union over the course of four years (1956-1960) and conclusively proved by an American spy satellite -- Discoverer 14 -- which imaged one-fifth of the territory of the Soviet Union on August 19, 1960, including all of the Soviet missile launch sites.

That Ashton Carter identifies himself with former Secretaries of Defense -- by name and deed -- who promulgated falsehoods is troubling. Rumsfeld's position on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is of recent vintage and has been well documented. Less well-known are the words and actions of former Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy whose leaked testimony to the US Senate in January 1959, where he claimed the Soviets had an edge of 100 ICBMs over that of the United States, helped trigger the public hysteria over a "missile gap" that, in fact, did not exist. At best, Mr. Carter is guilty of a kind of "group think" which would lead one to question his intellectual acuity. At worst, he is guilty of the kind of lack of integrity that is intolerable in our public servants. Neither bodes well when one considers the breadth and scope of the challenges facing the United States and the Department of Defense today.

Whether it is the threat posed by the Islamic State in the Middle East, issues dealing with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan, the ongoing presence of US military forces in Afghanistan, the challenges posed by an expanding China and resurgent Russia, or the massive problem of cutting back a bloated defense budget in the face of all of the above, Ashton Carter will be called upon to navigate what are, under any circumstances, difficult and troubled waters. That he will be doing so in the final two years of an Obama presidency hobbled by poor and/or controversial decision-making over the course of the past six years, and a recalcitrant Republican-led Congress more inclined toward faith-based analysis than fact (witness, for example, the "theology" of a nuclear deterrent that serves no meaningful purpose other than to prop up institutionalized programs and budgets), means that Mr. Carter will find himself facing a myriad of challenges that will test his intelligence and integrity in ways never previously done.

One can only hope that Ashton Carter has moved past his glib endorsements of Donald Rumsfeld's disingenuous "group think" and Neil McElroy's outright distortion of the truth and on to a personal code of conduct where speaking truth to power is not seen as a vice, but rather a virtue. But the fact that Mr. Carter is replacing a Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who was allegedly pushed out for exercising that very code, would seem to indicate that the Obama administration is seeking a more pliable cabinet member. Rather than a strong-willed purveyor of fact-based truths, the American people seem to be getting in the person of Ashton Carter nothing more than a continuation of the same mindset that shaped the words and actions of the former Secretaries of Defense, Rumsfeld and McElroy, both of whom Mr. Carter seems to draw upon for inspiration and guidance. If this is the case, one should not expect anything more innovative from the Pentagon than business as usual.