Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s honesty on matters of national security is causing headaches for the White House, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill like his willingness to dig into controversial issues publicly — unlike previous defense secretaries who voiced their frustration with the administration only after leaving office.
Mr. Carter has questioned the administration’s strategy in dealing with the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, making candid remarks last month when he publicly questioned the ability and drive of the Iraqi forces. Arming and training Iraqi forces is the centerpiece of President Obama’s strategy in the Middle East as the administration remains resolute in not committing U.S. boots on the ground despite the deteriorating situation.
In addition to losing Mosul last year, the Iraqi forces gave up Ramadi last month.
“What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” Mr. Carter said on CNN’s “State of the Union” in May. “They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
Mr. Carter’s remarks spurred anger among Iraqis, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden had to call Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reassure him of U.S. support. In addition, the White House championed achievements made by Iraqi fighters in other parts of Iraq when asked about the comment at a press briefing the following week.
“We have — and this is something that Secretary Carter has also discussed — we have seen a number of situations in which Iraqi Security Forces have performed well on the battlefield in the effort to retake Tikrit,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “They demonstrated not just the will to fight, but important capabilities that allowed them to succeed on the battlefield.”
In February, during his confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Mr. Carter what he understood to be the White House’s strategy in combating the Islamic State, and Mr. Carter struggled to provide an answer — indicating to lawmakers the administration’s strategy was unclear.
“I think the strategy connects ends and means, and our ends with respect to ISIL need to be its lasting defeat. I say lasting because, when they get defeated, it’s important they stay defeated,” Mr. Carter said. “That is why it is important that, uh, we have, uh, those on the ground there who will ensure they will stay defeated once defeated.”
To which Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said it “didn’t sound like a strategy” to him.
Mr. Obama acknowledged Monday his administration and its international partners still don’t have a “complete strategy” for combating the terrorist group, and said it and the Pentagon were crafting a plan to better recruit, train and equip Iraqi Security Forces, who at times have been overrun by Islamic State militants.
Despite not being always in lockstep with the White House, it’s unlikely Mr. Carter will be pushed from his position like his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, the senator from Nebraska who reportedly fell out of favor with the White House as the Islamic State began to rise.
Mr. Carter is essentially guaranteed the job for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s tenure, since naming a new secretary is a lengthy, difficult process that would only give Republicans ammunition against Democrats in an election year, analysts say. Mr. Carter is the fourth secretary of defense in the Obama administration. President George W. Bush had two defense secretaries during his two terms, and President Clinton had three.
Others who have served under Mr. Obama recalled frustrations once safely out of office.
Leon E. Panetta, who served as defense secretary from 2011 to 2013, blasted Mr. Obama in his memoir and subsequent interviews, saying the president had “lost his way” and “created a vacuum” for the Islamic State. Robert M. Gates, who also held the position, also wrote a book critical of the administration.
It was reported that Mr. Hagel was “very, very frustrated” as a member of the Obama Cabinet and its micromanagement, although Mr. Hagel hasn’t voiced his opinions since leaving the post this year.
While Mr. Carter would never intentionally step out and directly disagree with the president who nominated him, he will continue to publicly and clearly state his point of view and not cower to the White House, said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University.
“Carter is an honest man,” Mr. Adams said. His remarks regarding the Iraqis’ will to fight may have been because Mr. Carter felt “a signal needed to be sent to Iraqis that America’s patience was not unlimited,” Mr. Adams said.
Not all of Mr. Obama’s top military advisers have been as forthright in speaking as openly and honestly about issues of national security as has Mr. Carter, said Mr. Adams. For former Obama administration secretaries Mr. Gates, Mr. Panetta and Mr. Hagel, that was just “not the way they worked,” he said.
Mr. Carter’s successful tenure as deputy secretary of defense paved the way to an easy confirmation in the Senate earlier this year. He offered opinions that weren’t exactly in line with the administration even before taking the job, testifying during his confirmation hearing that he supported providing lethal arms to Ukrainians fighting Russian separatists. He also promised to recommend changes if he thought they were necessary in the president’s exit strategy for Afghanistan.
Mr. Carter’s independent remarks during his confirmation hearing also drew the ire of the White House, with Mr. Earnest stating: “Well, the other thing that I noticed that Dr. Carter mentioned in his hearing is that he’s a strong believer in the chain of command, and he certainly understands that the commander in chief is the top of that chain of command and that a decision like this will be made by the commander in chief.”
Before taking the top job at the Pentagon, Mr. Carter was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, served on the faculty at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and started out in the government in the Clinton administration, where he held an assistant secretary of defense position on international security.
Before serving as deputy secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013, Mr. Carter served as an undersecretary of defense handling acquisitions, technology and logistics.
“He is immensely open and honest by virtue of his background in academia, [and] he welcomes an open, passionate debate on issues,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, who sits on the committee that confirmed Mr. Carter.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat and also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that all the defense secretaries she’s worked with have been “very honest with me,” but that she is “partial” to Mr. Carter because of his commitment to reform contracting procedures in order to eliminate waste.
“His background is as a geeky nerd [who] really has been in the weeds on contracting, and that’s been an area that I have been relentless about,” she said. “Ash Carter is probably the first defense secretary in history that has such a strong working knowledge in that area, so I’m a big fan because of that.”
Mr. Carter’s candid critique of Iraqi troops at Ramadi is nothing but 12 years of frustration at the Iraqis’ inability to step up finally bubbling over, said P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman.
“Ultimately the quality of the security forces — how well they’re led and how well the Baghdad government is able to regain over time the trust of the Sunni community in Iraq — these are things that the Iraqis have to do,” said Mr. Crowley, who currently serves as a distinguished fellow at George Washington University. “The circumstances in Ramadi where the Iraqi Security Forces retreated, despite outnumbering the aggressors, I’m certainly not surprised that Secretary Carter would be frustrated and would express that frustration.”
Still, Mr. Carter hasn’t been a thorn in the side of the administration in all matters.
During his confirmation hearing he assured lawmakers he would not allow the White House to bully him into rapidly closing the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
However, last week he told reporters he was working with the White House to submit a plan to close the center.
“With respect to [Guantanamo], I’m working with the White House to prepare a plan, which we’ll then submit, per longstanding request, to Congress,” Mr. Carter told reporters, according to a report by Defense One. “My own view is this is a very constructive step. It’s important to see if we can find a way forward from this that is widely shared enough that we can actually get it done, and so I think it’s a good opportunity, and we’ll certainly follow through on that.”
Mr. Carter declined to comment for this article.
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