Ashton Carter is a well-known academic whose resume includes receiving a PhD in theoretical physics from Oxford University and working in a variety of posts in the U.S. Defense Department.
In December 2014, Carter was nominated by President Obama to replace outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel. During his Senate confirmation hearings, reported the Washington Post, Carter gave "every indication that he would be a hard-liner at the Pentagon and a strong counterweight to administration doves." He was confirmed on February 12, 2015.
After Carter's nomination was announced in late 2014, a number of observers pointed to his apparent comfort level with U.S. military intervention, particularly in the Middle East. The Inter Press Service noted that "neoconservatives and other Iran hawks have to be at least somewhat encouraged by Obama's imminent nomination of Ashton Carter. … [D]uring Obama's first term, Carter was a strong advocate of using or threatening to use military force to prevent nuclear non-proliferation."
The Times of Israel, referring to the "pro-Israel" community's dislike of former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, opined that "If there was ever an anti-Chuck Hagel as a candidate for U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter might be it."
During his brief Senate confirmation hearings in early 2015, Carter struck a hardline stance on many foreign policy issues. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was inclined to provide "defensive arms" to Ukraine and that he would "absolutely" resist pressure to hasten the closure of Guantanamo Bay. He also said he would push for halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan if the situation there deteriorated and claimed that Iran was equally as threatening as the Islamic State (or ISIS).
In February 2015, Carter travelled to Afghanistan for his first overseas trip as secretary of defense. During the visit, he announced that the United States would consider slowing its withdrawal of troops and keeping more troops in the country than previously planned.
Previous Obama administration posts
Carter's first stint in the Obama administration was as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics (2009-2011), during which he served as the "Pentagon's main weapons purchaser."
When he was initially tapped to serve as the Obama administration's Pentagon acquisition czar in 2009, some observers expressed skepticism, pointing to Carter's long academic career. According to the Washington Post, observers wondered whether he was "too much of an academic. One defense insider said a senior Pentagon official worried aloud that the Harvard professor will prove to be 'the next coming of Wolfowitz,' a reference to George W. Bush's first deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. Sources say the man known as 'Wolfy' had little acquisition or weapons-development experience before entering the Pentagon, and approved a long list of bad program plans."
From August 2011 to December 2013, Carter served as deputy secretary of defense, managing the day-to-day operations of the Pentagon, making adjustments for potential budget cuts, and gradually shifting U.S. defense planning from the Middle East to East Asia and the Pacific.
In this role, Carter became known as the "Obama administration's point man for improving defense ties with India." He was viewed as having a defining role in what became known as the "Defense Trade and Technology initiative" (DTI) between India and the United States, which lead to sharp increases in bilateral trade in weapons and military technology between the two countries.
Carter used his Pentagon perch to publicly criticize mandated defense budget cuts provided in the 2011 Budget Control Act. In an op-ed for Defense One, Carter argued that sequestration forced "deep, essentially mindless, additional cuts in the defense budget." He argued that the Defense Department will be "driven to make inefficient and unsound near term funding choices that will reduce our buying power" and harm "our readiness."
Said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, "Carter grossly exaggerates the reduction to the level of defense spending caused by the budget control act."
"Sequestration resulted in part from the inefficient and unsound choices the Pentagon has made over the past decade, much of it occurring on Carter's own watch," Korb added.
Nuclear proliferation and Iran
Carter has a long track record working on nuclear proliferation issues. According to The New Republic, "As President Bill Clinton's first-term assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, [Carter] was influential on nuclear arms-control issues, including successful efforts to disarm Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as nuclear nations."
Carter has argued that the United States must be willing to employ "coercive" measures to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities. In a 2004 article for Foreign Affairs, he argued that a U.S. priority must be "to stop adding to the world's stock of fissile materials, by preventing additional governments, especially those hostile to the United States, from making plutonium or enriching uranium. This will require establishing a clear U.S. strategy—diplomatic at first, but coercive if necessary—for the complete and verifiable elimination of Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs. The United States should also seek agreement that no more fissile material for weapons purposes will be produced anywhere, including in India, Pakistan, and Israel."
In the same article, Carter stressed the need to prevent non-state actors from acquiring "weapons of mass destruction," arguing that the decision to invade Iraq was a distraction from more important goals.
Carter wrote, "The war on terrorism that Washington is fighting and the war on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it needs to fight are related but not identical. The attacks of September 11, 2001, stimulated a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. counterterrorism practices and agencies. The United States went on the offensive in Afghanistan and around the world; border and immigration controls were tightened; emergency response was fortified; and a new Department of Homeland Security was created. But counterproliferation policies have not been overhauled. The most significant action taken by the United States to counter WMD since September 11 has been the invasion of Iraq. Although at the time intelligence suggesting a recrudescence of Saddam Hussein's WMD programs appeared to justify the war, it now seems that the intelligence was incorrect. Meanwhile, North Korea has quadrupled its stock of plutonium, a far graver setback to counterproliferation than anything Saddam might have been pursuing. A distracted administration has left the initiative for curbing Iran's evident nuclear ambitions to two groups that failed to support the Iraq invasion: the Europeans and the UN. And it has made no new efforts to prevent nonstate actors such as terrorists from getting their hands on WMD."
In a 2006 report for the Carnegie Endowment, Carter and coauthor William Perry wrote that "diplomacy and coercion should be mutually reinforcing," suggesting that certain "sticks" could be used to "persuade the Iranian regime to accept a diplomatic outcome."
However, Carter and Perry also warned that while a single airstrike could have "an important delaying effect" on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, any long-term damage to the program would require "repeated attacks" from the United States."
Although the report argued that Iran was likely "years away" from attaining any nuclear capability, some analysts have criticized Carter and his Washington colleagues for "assuming a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran as a fact."
A lead drafter of the report—titled "Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development"—was American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Rubin, an outspoken proponent of militarist U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Other participants included Henry Sokolski; WINEP scholar and Obama adviser Dennis Ross; Stephen Rademaker, the husband of AEI's Danielle Pletka who worked under John Bolton in the State Department; and Kenneth Weinstein, CEO of the Hudson Institute.
The report argued that despite Iran's assurances to the contrary, its nuclear program aims to develop nuclear weapons and is thus a threat to "U.S. and global security, regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime," a conclusion that contrasted sharply with the CIA's November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had put its efforts to develop nuclear warheads on hold.
The report stated, "As a new president prepares to occupy the Oval Office, the Islamic Republic's defiance of its Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards obligations and United Nations Security Council resolutions will be among the greatest foreign policy and national security challenges confronting the nation."
In contrast to many realist assessments of the situation, the report contended that "Cold War deterrence" is not persuasive in the context of Iran's program, due in large measure to the "Islamic Republic's extremist ideology." Thus, even a peaceful uranium enrichment program would place the entire Middle East region "under a cloud of ambiguity given uncertain Iranian capacities and intentions."
The report advised the incoming U.S. president to bolster the country's military presence in the Middle East, including by "pre-positioning additional U.S. and allied forces, deploying additional aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers, emplacing other war material in the region, including additional missile defense batteries, upgrading both regional facilities and allied militaries, and expanding strategic partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia in order to maintain operational pressure from all directions."
In addition, it said, the new administration should suspend bilateral cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues to pressure it to stop providing assistance to Iran's nuclear, missile, and weapons programs. And, if the new administration agrees to hold direct talks with Tehran without insisting that the country first cease enrichment activities, it should set a pre-determined compliance deadline and be prepared to apply increasingly harsh repercussions if the deadlines are not met, leading ultimately to U.S. military strikes that would "have to target not only Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response."
Calling the report a "roadmap to war," Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote, "In other words, if Tehran is not eventually prepared to permanently abandon its enrichment of uranium on its own soil—a position that is certain to be rejected by Iran ab initio—war becomes inevitable, and all intermediate steps, even including direct talks if the new president chooses to pursue them, will amount to going through the motions (presumably to gather international support for when push comes to shove).… What is a top Obama advisor [Dennis Ross] doing signing on to it?"
Carter's aggressive counterproliferation views have received praise from some conservatives, including Mario Loyola, who lauded Carter in a 2012 National Review article for "not[ing] that limited military force could be integral to a diplomatic strategy" with respect to Iran.
On the other hand, Carter has expressed skepticism about the value of a direct military strike, either by Israel or the United States, on Iran's nuclear installations. In his contribution to a 2009 Center for a New American Security report titled Iran: Assessing U.S. Strategic Options, Carter wrote that a direct U.S. attack on Iran's Natanz faculty would likely have little long-term impact on the country's alleged bomb program.
With respect to an Israeli strike, he emphasized the negative impact such a strike would have on U.S. interests: "The benefit to Israel of such a strike—delaying Iran's acquisition of a bomb—could be estimated in much the same way as the benefit of a U.S. strike. The cost to Israel is harder to estimate. Unlike the United States, Israel is not involved in any multilateral negotiations with Iran that would be compromised by military action. Israel has no regional or global reputation to safeguard when it comes to dealing with Iran. The Iranian people harbor no good will toward Israel that would be shattered. And Iran would likely calibrate its retaliation against Israel in the certain knowledge that Israel was prepared to take further action to dominate any escalation. The costs to the United States of an Israeli strike are easier to discern. Even if the United States had no complicity in or knowledge of an Israeli strike, few people on the street throughout the Middle East would believe it. It would also be a challenge for the United States to prove to the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others outside the region that are key to any kind of lasting settlement with Iran that it had nothing to do with the attack. The costs to the United States of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program might therefore be almost as large as the costs of a U.S. strike."
Despite these shortcomings, Carter concluded that military action must nevertheless be an integral part of any strategy aimed at halting a presumed Iranian bomb program, "Military action must be viewed as a component of a comprehensive strategy rather than a stand-alone option for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. But it is an element of any true option. A true option is a complete strategy integrating political, economic, and military elements and seeing the matter through to a defined and achievable end. For any military element, the sequel to action must be part of the strategy because the military action by itself will not finish the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions once and for all. Airstrikes on the Iranian nuclear program or other targets could conceivably reset the diplomatic table in pursuit of a negotiated end to the nuclear program, but they could also easily overturn the diplomatic table. The alternative to the diplomatic table, broadly speaking, is a strategy of containment and punishment of an Iran that ultimately proceeds with its nuclear program. A variety of military measures—air assault, blockade, encirclement, and deterrence—could be elements of such a containment strategy."
Carter's track record includes having served on a number of government advisory boards, including the Defense Policy Board, the Defense Science Board, and the secretary of state's International Security Advisory Board, among others.
In between his government appointments, he has served as the chairman of the Harvard Kennedy School's global affairs faculty and as co-chair of its Preventative Defense Project.
Carter also has extensive experience in the corporate world, having served as a senior partner at Global Technology Partners, a member of the board of trustees for the MITRE Corporation, and an adviser to Goldman Sachs. He also serves on the Advisory Boards of MIT's Lincoln Laboratories and the Draper Laboratory.