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Obama Points To Ashton Carter For Defense Secretary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For the fourth time in six years, President Obama has introduced the man he wants to be secretary of defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With a record of service that has spanned more than 30 years as a public servant, as an adviser, as a scholar, Ash is rightly regarded as one of our nation's foremost national security leaders.

INSKEEP: Ash, he called him. That's Ashton Carter, as we've been reporting this morning, and Ashton Carter was standing next to the president. He has held many jobs at the Defense Departments over the years, but this one, the top job, presents a special challenge. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been covering this story. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the challenge?

BOWMAN: Well, the challenge is, will he get to run the Department of Defense? One of the common words you hear at the Pentagon is micromanagement. And, Steve, in the military out in the field, they have what's called a tactical operations center, pronounced talk. And there are some in the Pentagon who have started calling the White House the downtown TOC because of the micromanagement and bureaucracy.

INSKEEP: Ouch. The idea being that the White House is getting involved in tactical decisions and not thinking about strategy.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, and that's a huge problem according to the Pentagon officials. And the former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta talked about this problem in their books.

INSKEEP: And this is something, of course, if you got the White House perspective, I'm sure they'd see it very differently and they're running things the way they want to run them. But the complaint is out there. In fact, it was thought that Chuck Hagel, the man who's leaving as defense secretary, was selected because he would be a little bit less assertive. But now we have this man, Ashton Carter, stepping into this job. Does he seem comfortable with this situation that some other defense secretaries have been uncomfortable with?

BOWMAN: Yes, I think first of all, he knows what he's getting into. He's also very comfortable in his own skin, very bright and analytical. He has a PhD in physics. He also was a Rhodes scholar - very, very bright guy and analytical, but also down to earth. He's not an ivory tower kind of guy - gregarious and funny. And he's, you know - he was a number-two official at the Pentagon, so he's seen everything at the Pentagon from weapons systems to policy.

INSKEEP: Is there a specialty he has had at the Pentagon, something he's associated with over the years?

BOWMAN: Well, actually, he's been involved in almost everything from the policy to pivot to Asia to the decision to stop buying more F-22 stealth fighters. And also he was involved in getting more equipment to soldiers in the field in Afghanistan, particularly the MRAPs, those large, armored vehicles. He got the nickname The Deliverer because he gets stuff to the field fast.

INSKEEP: And this is reminding us that this job is so huge and so complex. You're managing a larger organization; you're thinking about technology and hardware; but you're also thinking about strategy and America's role in the world. You talk about the pivot to Asia. This is a job that touches everything.

BOWMAN: It's an incredibly complex job and particularly now, I think. There are huge defense cuts coming. He's going to have to try to manage that. The Army is concerned that they're cutting too many soldiers. They want to stop that cut and also the policy in Syria. You know, some want to go after Assad, and also in Iraq, some are saying, listen the United States has to play a larger role on the ground. And the White House of course say no boots on the ground there. It has to be the Iraqi army that takes this effort.

INSKEEP: A reminder that Ashton Carter, if he's confirmed, will also be managing a very complex war. Do you have a sense of what, if anything, might be different if this man is confirmed by the Senate.

BOWMAN: Well, he told the president today he would give his unvarnished views. He wouldn't stop, you know - he would, you know, tell him exactly what he thought. And there's some concerns clearly in Afghanistan with the drawdown in troops. Are the troops going to be drawn down too fast and too much?

INSKEEP: Oh, because it's going to be down to 10,000 in 2015 and even less than that...

BOWMAN: Right, and then 5,000 the year after. What the U.S. has to do now is give more effort to do more for the Afghan forces, provide air cover and so forth. So that's something he's going to have to work on.

INSKEEP: OK, Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman, talking with us on this morning that President Obama has named Ashton Carter as next secretary of defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.