Admittedly, President Barack Obama is officially a lame duck, leaving office in January 2017. His new secretary of defense, replacing the jettisoned former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, will serve no longer than that.
It appears there was at least some difficulty finding a short-timer for such a stressful job. A couple of leading possibilities took themselves off the list quickly, including U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island — a combat veteran and Democratic leader on many defense issues.
The good news is that Obama’s pick, Ashton Carter, is a veteran of several stints in the Pentagon and appears to be well-respected there.
More relevantly for a lame-duck president, he seems to be well-respected among Republican leaders in the Senate, which must confirm his appointment. Among the most important: John McCain, of Arizona, incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
McCain was among other senators waving through Carter’s appointment as deputy secretary in the Pentagon, a job he left to return to academia when Hagel arrived.
Carter’s expertise — he is trained as a physicist and taught at Harvard University — was mostly in nuclear strategy. With the endless desert-warfare swamp involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, questions in the confirmation hearings are likely to be about other matters than his specialties.
Still, Carter earned plaudits for helping to wrestle economies out of the historical problems of Pentagon procurement of weapons. As former Secretary Robert Gates recounted vividly in his recent memoir, the battle over spending and pressure from defense contractors and their friends on Capitol Hill is an unceasing part of the secretary’s job.
The nuclear portfolio also is something that we believe is a positive qualification for even a short-term stint by Carter. Procedures for handling nuclear weapons have come under heavy criticism lately; the Air Force has relieved some senior commanders. And on a purely parochial note for us in Louisiana, Carter will be familiar with Barksdale Air Force Base in the Shreveport area and its critical role in the Global Strike Command based there.
Carter’s new post is not a short-timer’s job to ease through. Our troops are serving in conflicts abroad and likely will be until Carter’s term is up; the role of the civilian leadership is particularly crucial for our military efforts now.