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What you need to know about Ashton Carter, Obama's new Defense Secretary nominee

Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter
Alex Wong / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. Ashton Carter, a former Defense Department official and Harvard professor, will be nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense at a Friday morning press conference with President Obama.
  2. Carter has a long list of academic and security establishment credentials, as well as a history of bipartisan praise.
  3. His main expertise is in nuclear strategy and he has overseen the Pentagon's weapons procurement and budget.
  4. He has a history of hawkish leanings on certain issues, advocating for a preemptive strike against North Korea in 2006 and calling for a bigger residual force to be left in Iraq when President Obama was withdrawing troops.

Who is Ashton Carter?

On Friday morning, President Obama will announce that he will nominate Ashton B. Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, according to a White House statement.

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. As deputy, he managed the Pentagon day-to-day and helped deal with the effects of sequestration.

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 and then-Secretary of Defense 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 former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel instead, and Carter remained deputy until December 2013, when he returned to academia.

Carter has a long list of elite academic credentials. After earning a bachelor's degree in medieval history and physics from Yale, he earned his PhD in theoretical physics from Oxford in 1979. He then worked briefly in Congress's Office of Technology Assessment and the Pentagon and as a research fellow at MIT's Center for International Studies, before joining the faculty at Harvard University and becoming the director of its Center for Science and International Affairs. In 1993, he joined the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and later served as a senior advisor to the administration's North Korea Policy Review.

What Carter's nomination means for the US

Carter has a great deal of mainstream and bipartisan credibility, and he's clearly 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-making in the National Security Council, which is to say within the White House, rather than among Cabinet-level officials such as Carter.

In an interview with Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg Views, McCain scoffed at the idea that Carter would determine Iran and Syria policy, saying, "I guarantee that he would not have any influence on those decisions."

A senior administration official recently told Michael Crowley of Politico Magazine, "you can't make the case that if we need a fundamental change you're going to get it with him," and added that Carter would be "a steady hand."

Carter is respected by many on the right: he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to be Panetta's deputy in 2011, and Sen. John McCain has called him "a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant." Support for Carter's nomination from Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a staunch conservative serving on the Armed Services Committee, is also noteworthy. This gives Carter a good chance at winning quick approval even if his nomination isn't considered until the GOP takes control of the Senate next year.

It's actually possible that the harshest criticism of Carter could come from liberals, given 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 a long-range missile North Korea was then constructing. Crowley also points out that Carter "was a believer in a strong residual U.S. force in Iraq" before Obama withdrew combat troops from the country during his first term.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect new developments.

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