President Barack Obama has bungled the job of appointments to key national security positions for the past six years, and the nomination of Ashton Carter will allow him to maintain his streak. Carter is the classic example of the defense intellectual who has labored in the halls of academe, and then becoming extremely hawkish as he or she attains status and influence in the halls of the Pentagon. An important example is Carter’s views on national missile defense over the past three decades. In the 1980s, while on the faculty of Harvard University, Carter wrote a study for the Office of Technology Assessment that assailed the effectiveness and usefulness of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. As a defense department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, however, Carter became a strong supporter of both national missile defense in the United States and even the ridiculous idea of installing a regional missile defense in Eastern Europe against the possibility of a threat from Iran. The latter idea at least displays a certain amount of imagination.
Carter, however, has displayed a consistency in recommending the use of force. Although there has been a persistent misuse of military force in U.S. national security policy over the past several decades, which has costs tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, you would be hard pressed to find an example of Carter offering any criticism of how military policy has been used and misused. Fortunately, his advice to use military force has been ignored on several important occasions. President Bill Clinton ignored Carter’s recommendation to use air power against North Korea in 1994, and wisely resorted to diplomacy. As a result, the State Department helped to arrange the Agreed Framework with Pyongyang that led to a freeze in the North Korean nuclear program. Carter recommended a similar use of force to the Bush administration to prevent the test of a North Korean long-range missile that failed in less than 40 seconds. President George W. Bush ignored Carter’s recommendation, which predictably had the support of Vice President Dick Cheney.
Carter has been disingenuous in challenging the notion that there are savings to be had in reducing spending on strategic weaponry. As recently as last year, then Deputy Defense Secretary Carter argued that “you would be surprised to know that
nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much…. It is not a big swinger of the budget. You don’t save a lot of money by having arms control and so forth.” In fact, one of the best-kept defense secrets of the past sixty years has been the high cost of producing and maintaining nuclear weapons, somewhere between $5-6 trillion, which represents more than one-fourth of overall defense spending. A great deal of this money is in the budget for the Department of Energy, and therefore defense intellectuals such as Ashton Carter can say that it is not part of the defense budget.
When Senator John McCain (R-AZ) gets around to confirmation hearings for Carter, he should pursue the nominee’s role in the huge cost overruns for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There is no better example of President Eisenhower’s warning regarding the military-industrial complex than the procurement history of the F-35. Senator McCain has referred to the program as a “train wreck and has noted that the total cost of building and operating the F-35 fleet was a “jaw-dropping” $1 trillion. The dirty secret with fighter aircraft and bomber programs is that operating and supporting costs tend to double the initial costs of production and procurement. McCain should use the confirmation hearings to press Carter on his support for allowing each service (Air Force, Navy, and Marines) to have its own version of the F-35, begging the question of why, given our dominant and unchallenged Air Force, the separate services need their own advanced aircraft.
Over the past several years, Carter has advanced and supported the bromides that have substituted for strategic thinking in U.S. foreign policy. There was the “reset” with Russia that must be seen in the context of the Cold War environment that now exists between Washington and Moscow. There was the “pivot” to Asia, which suggested a containment policy against China as a substitute for diplomacy. And there was this or that “surge” in Iraq and Afghanistan, which only delayed the inevitable with regard to our fool’s errands in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
In the field of national security, with the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry, President Obama has appointed individuals with no special expertise in their appointed assignments (Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Tom Donilon, and General James Jones) or those who misused their positions to advance their own agendas (Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and John Brennan). With Ashton Carter, the president has nominated a so-called defense intellectual whose support for the use of force over the past twenty years is counter to the policies and positions that President Obama has advanced, particularly over the past two years.
There were many reasons why Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was not up to the task of managing the stewardship of U.S. national security policy. Nevertheless, Secretary Hagel did not subscribe to Pax Americana and U.S. triumphalism, and appeared to be a pragmatist. Conversely, one of Carter’s closest confidants is Bob Gates who allowed too many general officers to become the spokesmen for U.S. policy and failed to exercise civilian control over the military. Once again, the Pentagon is in the hands of someone who believes in American exceptionalism and that the United States has a moral obligation to make the world over in our image.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” (Rowman and Littlefield) and “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism” (City Lights Publishers) as well as the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: A Whistleblower at the CIA” (City Lights Publishers, 2015). Goodman is a contributing editor to CounterPunch on National Security.