Defense Secretary’s Tensions With GOP Could Lead Clinton Elsewhere

Flournoy said to lead Democratic nominee's list of prospective Pentagon chiefs

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008. (CQ Roll Call photo)
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008. (CQ Roll Call photo)
Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:00am

If elected, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton could follow through on her desire to appoint the nation’s first female defense secretary.

A widening rift between congressional Republicans and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, as well as Clinton’s own differing world view from Carter’s, makes that more likely.

Since Clinton announced her candidacy last year, defense circles have buzzed with speculation that the first female president would likely want to nominate a woman to run the Pentagon, with Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of Defense for policy in the first Obama administration, at the top of the list of contenders.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who has won praise even from some critics of that service during her nearly three-year tenure, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have also been mentioned as possible candidates. The nomination of any of the three would likely meet little resistance from a Republican-controlled Senate, defense observers say.

“I’m hearing that Flournoy is under very serious consideration,” said one defense-sector source with ties to the Democratic party establishment. Flournoy, currently the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank she helped launch in 2007, is informally advising Clinton’s campaign.

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Other defense sources expect a President Clinton to replace virtually every senior Obama administration official in a national security post.

“The Clintons like full control,” a second defense source said.

Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid. A Clinton campaign spokeswoman declined to comment on the Democratic nominee’s plans.

Other defense insiders suggest there is a case to be made for retaining Carter at the Pentagon, if Clinton is victorious. Carter advised Clinton when she was battling Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary cycle.

“It isn’t so obvious why she would want to replace a hardworking, successful secretary with someone who is untested — especially when she will have so many other appointments to make,” said Loren Thompson, the chief operating officer at the nonprofit Lexington Institute and a consultant to leading defense firms.

“I’m guessing Carter can stay on if he wants,” said Thompson, before adding a major caveat: “That’s assuming nothing big goes wrong between now and Inauguration Day.”

Carter’s spokesman, Peter Cook, did not directly say whether his boss would be interested in keeping his job in a potential Clinton administration.

Carter has seen it as “an honor for him to lead the Department of Defense under President Obama,” Cook said, adding that the fight against the Islamic State and ongoing operations in Afghanistan, among other things, keep him “firmly focused on his current job.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are quick to say Clinton or Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump should have the leeway to select their own Cabinet members. But it’s apparent that some powerful GOP members with whom Clinton would likely want to get off on a good foot have grown frustrated with Carter.

[Profile: Defense Secretary Nominee Ashton Carter]

Asked if he believes Carter has performed well enough to be retained, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry replied: “I don’t know.”

“There’s areas I have concerns. Particularly, the relationship between Congress and the Pentagon is not what I had hoped when he took [over] there,” the Texas Republican said Wednesday. “I don’t know if that’s his responsibility or those around him.”

Thornberry’s remarks came a day after a Pentagon strategy memo surfaced that raised the prospect of playing the House and Senate against each other on defense spending, as well as of trying to undermine Thornberry. The memo assesses the Armed Services chairman as still “smarting” from losing a battle last year with the White House over Obama’s initial veto of a defense policy measure.

“I hope that whoever is next, we have a more constructive relationship [with Congress] in looking after national security,” Thornberry told Roll Call, citing an earlier statement on the Pentagon memo that accused “some” in the Obama administration with spending “so much time and effort playing political games.”

In a sign that Clinton might deem keeping the Yale- and Oxford-educated physicist in charge of the Defense Department too politically dicey, Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham voiced strong opposition.

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“No, I’m very disappointed in Ash Carter. I don’t think it would be a good idea,” the South Carolina Republican said. He pointed to Flournoy and Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed of Rhode Island as among “a lot of good of good folks … on the Democratic side” whom he could support for the job.

The Armed Services panel conducts oversight of Pentagon policymaking, including its actions against the Islamic State and management of weapons programs. It can create headaches for defense secretaries and presidents via its annual defense authorization legislation.

“I like him a lot as a person. And I’m more disappointed in his boss (Obama) than I am [in] him,” Graham said. “But I think it’d be time for a change.”

Congressional views aren’t the only reason Clinton may want to look for a new Pentagon chief. A review of her record as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and secretary of State reveals a more interventionist worldview — and a willingness to use American military power to solve global problems and pursue U.S. interests.

Carter has fully embraced Obama’s policies in places like Syria, where the administration has resisted going beyond airstrikes and using a limited number of U.S. advisers to support local forces. Clinton, in contrast, supports establishing no-fly zones there, and using the U.S. Air Force and Navy to enforce them.

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In Afghanistan, Carter has supported the president’s desire to remove as many U.S. troops as soon as possible. Clinton is expected to favor keeping more forces on the ground, and possibly even more combat forces, rather than ones dedicated to assisting Afghan troops.

Flournoy has prescribed policies that align more with Clinton than the man she could replace. She advocates using American military forces to take territory in southern Syria away from regime-backed troops. She would also increase U.S. ground forces in the Middle East fighting the Islamic State.

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.