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Obama's next Defense Secretary: a guide to Hagel's possible replacements

On Monday morning, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he was resigning and would stay on until a successor is in place. But who might that successor be? Here's a guide to the top contenders — and how likely they are to nab the Pentagon's highest office.

Michèle Flournoy

michele flournoy

Flournoy. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Who she is: Flournoy knows the Pentagon well: for most of Obama's first term, she served as Undersecretary of Defense for policy, the third-highest job in the Pentagon. While in office, she co-chaired the Afghanistan policy review, the recommendations from which evolved into Obama's 30,000 troop surge in the country. Before joining the White House, she co-founded the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that evolved into a major braintrust for the Obama foreign policy team.

What it would mean: A Flournoy pick would be safe. As you might expect from a former administration official, she's broadly in tune with Obama's approach to world politics. She called the strategy against ISIS "comprehensive" and "clear;" like Obama, she wants to reverse the sequestration cuts to the defense budget.

Flournoy is also popular with her former Pentagon colleagues and the DC foreign policy cognoscenti.  "It's hard to find anyone in the Washington defense establishment who doesn't respect her," Spencer Ackerman wrote in a 2011 Washingtonian profile.

In addition to being safe, a Flournoy pick would also be historic: she'd be the first woman to ever run the Pentagon.

Is it likely? She's one of the top contenders. There are very few downsides here from the administration's point of view, and quite a few advantages. According to the New York Times, Flournoy is on the White House's shortlist for the job.

Ashton Carter

Ashton Carter

Carter. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Who he is: A theoretical physicist and former Harvard professor with an expertise in nuclear policy and weapons spending, Carter served in the Pentagon under Presidents Clinton and Obama and rose to be Deputy Secretary of Defense in October 2011. Well-connected among the national security establishment, Carter "has advised nearly every major strategy group, research council, and governmental panel on issues of international security," according to the New Republic. When his boss Leon Panetta stepped down at the beginning of Obama's second term, Carter was considered as a possible replacement (and also as a potential Energy Secretary). Obama chose Hagel instead, and Carter remained deputy until December 2013, when he returned to academia.

What it would mean: Carter would be a pick with a lot of mainstream and bipartisan credibility who's well-equipped to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy. But he's not particularly known for strategic thinking about the Middle East, so his selection would likely indicate that the White House will continue to center its foreign policy development process in the National Security Council rather than the Cabinet.

Carter is respected by many on the right — he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to be Panetta's deputy in 2011, Sen. John McCain has called him "a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant," and conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin wrote in 2013 that Carter's appointment could "add some muscle to an administration that has too rarely backed up its rhetoric with action." However, he may face some criticism from liberals for his hawkish leanings on certain issues — for instance, in 2006, he co-wrote an op-ed calling on the Bush administration to strike and destroy the nuclear missile North Korea was then constructing.

Is it likely? Along with Flournoy, Carter is the other top contender on the Times list. He'd have a good chance at winning approval from the GOP Senate and the confidence of Republican senators like McCain (who will head the committee overseeing the nominee's confirmation). That could prove to be an important consideration for Obama. Carter's expertise with the nuts and bolts of the Pentagon could also prove to be helpful managing the war against ISIS.

Jack Reed

jack reed

Reed. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Who he is: Reed is the senior senator from Rhode Island, a post to which he was just reelected this year. As far as senators go, Reed isn't especially high-profile. But he has a politically perfect resume: he served in the 82nd Airborne, taught at West Point, and is one of the most respected voices on the Armed Services committee.

What it would mean: Reed is one of the Senate's most liberal members, including on foreign policy. Among other things, he was one of only 23 Senators to vote against the original authorization for Bush's Iraq war. He strongly opposes the use of US ground troops against ISIS, warning in an MSNBC appearance that "large conventional ground forces" could lead to "a political and insurgency nightmare."

Reed might, then, help Obama push back against those in the military who want to expand the ISIS war — though he does support the administration's current policy.

Is it likely? Not very. Like Flournoy and Carter, Reed's name has been bandied about quite a bit. He'd be a popular choice in Washington and on Capitol Hill, but he doesn't seem to want the job. After the Hagel departure was announced, a Reed spokesman told the Providence Journal that "he has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for Secretary of Defense or any other Cabinet position."

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