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Politics & Government

Senate Panel Holds Hearing For Ash Carter, Defense Nominee

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's get a profile now of President Obama's choice for the next defense secretary. He's a man who contains some contradictions. Ashton Carter is an Ivy League graduate who has said he disdains preppies and privilege. At Yale, he studied both medieval history, distant and mystical, and also physics, modern and rational. He has a reputation for being brusque in Pentagon meetings but easygoing with soldiers in the field. Today, a Senate committee holds a hearing to decide if Carter is right for the job. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Kabul, Afghanistan 2012, retired Lieutenant General Dan Bolger remembers the unusual scene like it was yesterday. The No. 2 Pentagon official Ash Carter was on an official visit. Normally, VIPs take helicopters. The roads are too dangerous. But Carter hopped into a massive armored vehicle for a drive to an Afghan training site. Bolger had his eye on Carter's security team.

DAN BOLGER: Most of them were spazzing when this happened. They were like, oh, you know, Mr. Secretary, but we can take the Black Hawk helicopter. There's no need to do this. And he's like, no, no, there is a need.

BOWMAN: Carter saw the need because he'd spent years pushing the bureaucracy to get these vehicles into the field to protect soldiers against roadside bombs.

BOLGER: And his attitude was, hey, I'm getting this equipment for our guys and getting this for our Iraqi and Afghan partners. I want to experience it. I want to go out with it. I want to see it. I want to use it. You know, he wasn't the guy who just wanted to look at a PowerPoint slide of it.

BOWMAN: Carter never served in uniform, unlike the previous four defense secretaries. He first worked at the Pentagon more than 30 years ago as a Cold War missile analyst. And over the years, between teaching at Harvard, he's worked on everything from North Korean policy to the design of the latest Navy ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHUCK HAGEL: He knows this place. He knows the system.

BOWMAN: That's outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a recent interview with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGEL: So it's different from having someone walk in that hadn't been around this place.

BOWMAN: But some questioned whether Carter is too much part of the system. Winslow Wheeler, a defense analyst, says one of Carter's more recent jobs was overseeing the purchase of jets and aircraft carriers. He says Carter could have done a better job managing costly and poorly performing weapons, like the F-35 warplane.

WINSLOW WHEELER: He jiggered around the F-35 procurement plan. It did absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problems with that program.

BOWMAN: Other defense analysts say Wheeler's assessment's unfair, that Carter restructured the F-35 program, fired some managers and withheld money from its contractor. The F-35 will now just be one of Carter's headaches. He'll also face continuing fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Carter acknowledged that he was one of the few senior Obama officials who was against arming the Syrian rebels three years ago. He spoke with Charlie Rose on PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHARLIE ROSE")

ASHTON CARTER: I think a better approach for us was, and is now, to work on the political side with those who surround Syria, rather than on the military side simply because the ultimate solution has to be a political one.

BOWMAN: A political solution. That's in keeping with the Obama administration's views, but Carter will also oversee a new Pentagon plan to train Syrian rebels. In Iraq, Carter also sees a political problem that the American military can't resolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHARLIE ROSE")

CARTER: We'll see whether Iraq can endure as a inclusive state or whether it fractures.

BOWMAN: But Carter will inherit a U.S. training mission there too. And the Pentagon says that some U.S. troops might be needed near the front lines. Carter may have to ask the president to go back on his pledge not to send ground troops to Iraq. Afghanistan is another issue where the Pentagon could be at odds with the White House. That country's leadership is expected to ask President Obama to slow the drawdown of troops there, a request that some U.S. generals are also pushing. The man Carter will replace in the coming days, Chuck Hagel, has some advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGEL: Listen, listen, listen, and I'm not sure leaders listen enough. You need the buy-in, and that comes to a great extent from listening to your top commanders right down to your privates.

BOWMAN: There are widespread complaints at the Pentagon that it's the Obama White House that doesn't listen to the military, that it distrusts those in uniform, that it micromanages. Now Ash Carter will find out if the White House listens to him. Tom Bowman, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.