December 6, 2023



Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Physicist to lead Pentagon

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Assuming Ashton Carter wins Senate confirmation, and it’s likely that he will, the nation’s next Secretary of Defense will be a physicist with degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale, and a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which he acquired as a Rhodes Scholar.

It’s tempting to say that degree in medieval history will come in handy when he assesses the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and the administration’s less than stellar performance in rolling back the extremists who have a penchant for beheading people and enslaving women.

Carter was at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary for Global Strategic Affairs, experience that should serve him well as he attempts to navigate through the various crises facing the Obama administration. The apparent lack of any overarching strategy as the White House tries to deal with ISIS while simultaneously staying out of the civil war in Syria gave Secretary Hagel heartburn, and led to his recent resignation.

Carter also spent time at the Pentagon under Obama, where he was Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics before leaving in October 2011. He is an experienced technocrat who knows his way around the Pentagon budget like no other human being in Washington.

In a city where information is power, Carter’s knowledge base confers status. He has dealt with Congress on budget matters, and he has the confidence of Republican leaders, notably Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who will chair the Armed Services Committee in the next Congress.

Together perhaps they can forge a more assertive policy toward ISIS that President Obama can accept. While Obama’s overarching goal remains ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and keeping America out of another war in the Middle East, the forced resignation of Secretary Hagel signals a willingness to change direction to some degree.

Obama does not want the U.S. to take the lead in the Middle East. He wants other nations in the region, especially Turkey, to get more engaged in the fight against ISIS. A report in the Washington Post about a proposed air corridor along the border of Turkey and Syria that would allow Turkish special forces to enter a strip of land inside Syria is part of the evolving strategy. The Post story included an anonymous quote from a U.S. official welcoming trained Turkish special forces to help with targeting for air strikes.

Right now, the official said, the U.S. is relying on friendly Syrian “dudes with cellphones” on the ground.  That’s no way to run a military operation. Obama’s refusal to put American boots on the ground is wise and understandable, but placing U.S. personnel as forward observers to spot and target strikes is not the same as sending combat units to the front.

Hagel lost Obama’s confidence because he apparently wasn’t willing to stake out firm opinions in meetings at the White House. Hagel is a battlefield veteran whose mission was to bring the troops home, not send them into another venture that is not sufficiently thought through.

Carter is a thinker and a logician accustomed to thinking through the military’s needs and the consequences of any encounter. It sounds bizarre on the face of it to put a physicist in charge of war-making, but it may turn out to be an ingenious pick.

U.S. critics worry the proposed air corridor is a ploy by Turkish President Erdogan to draw the Obama administration deeper into the conflict, which is of course the fear that Turkey has as well. No nation wants primary responsibility for the mess in Syria and the rise of ISIS, yet the foreign ministers of some 60 nations meeting in Brussels this week with Secretary of State Kerry agreed that ISIS must be degraded and eventually destroyed. This is the kind of challenge custom made for Ashton Carter.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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