Carter has his work cut out
UNITED States President Barack Obama, whose administration is under criticism for micromanaging military strategy, has chosen a nominee for Defence Secretary who gives him Pentagon expertise without the independent political power base of his three immediate predecessors.
Mr Obama has settled on Ashton Carter, 60, who spent more than two years as the Defence Department's No. 2 civilian official under former secretary Leon Panetta and then Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to an official who declined to be named.
He also served under Mr Obama's first defence chief, Robert Gates, as the military's top weapons buyer.
Mr Carter does not have the political prominence of Mr Gates, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director and former defence secretary under president George W. Bush; or of Mr Panetta, the White House chief of staff for president Bill Clinton who also served as CIA director and was chairman of the House Budget Committee. Nor does he bring the congressional connections of Mr Hagel, who was a Republican senator from Nebraska.
It may not matter. Mr Gates and Mr Panetta both wrote in their memoirs that they felt their advice was ignored and found it difficult to prevail against a White House staff in spite of their stature in Washington.
"I hope he understands what his three predecessors have found, and that is the decision-making is in with a handful of people in the White House," said Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican who will take control of the Senate Armed Services Committee next month.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Mr Carter would take over the Pentagon at a time when spending constraints must be weighed against the need to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group, a revanchist Russia and an assertive China.
Former defence secretary William Cohen, who served in the Clinton administration, said Mr Carter's experience with the budget and weapons acquisition programmes will be critical, given that he will take the job with only two years left in Mr Obama's term.
"He's got a pretty limited window, so you need someone who really understands the process and doesn't need any breaking in," Mr Cohen said.
The role of defence secretary, once one of Washington's most powerful jobs overseeing the world's strongest military and a budget of more than US$600 billion (S$786 billion), has faded in the Obama era.
Mr Hagel's departure after less than 21 months followed disagreements over Syria and Iraq as well as friction between him and Mr Obama's national security team.
"If the White House continues to operate the way it's been operating, it will frustrate whoever is the defence secretary," said Dov Zakheim, who was undersecretary of defence in Mr Bush's administration and deputy undersecretary of defence under president Ronald Reagan.
But Mr Carter's experience does give him some clout, he noted. "It's not a power base in the conventional sense of the term, but he's a guy who knows what he's talking about, and that is a power base of a different sort," he said. "The other side is, will the White House listen to him?"
Ali Khedery, chairman of Dubai-based Dragoman Partners, who spent several years in Iraq advising US commanders, agreed.
While Mr Carter may be effective in running the Pentagon, he is unlikely to play a major policy role within the administration, he said.
"This White House is very insular," Mr Khedery said. "Carter is almost certainly not going to be a decisive voice, particularly given his lack of experience in the Middle East."