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Ashton Carter Nominated For Secretary Of Defense

Unlike outgoing Secretary Hagel, Carter is no former soldier — he's a theoretical physicist but knows the inner workings of the Pentagon well. Leading Senate Republicans say he'll be easily confirmed.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been hearing Ashton Carter's name thrown around for days. He's who President Obama wants as his next Defense Secretary. The president made the nomination official at a White House ceremony today. Noticeably absent was the current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He's widely seen as having been pushed into resigning.

NPR's David Welna reports the question is whether Carter can succeed where Hagel struggled.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: To get today's nomination ceremony underway, President Obama seized on a better-than-expected monthly jobs report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is wonderful to be able to announce, not the creation, but at least the filling of one new job.

WELNA: The moment was slightly awkward. Last night, the White House promised Defense Secretary Hagel would attend his successor's nomination. But Hagel was in fact a no-show. In presenting his pick to replace Hagel, Obama described Ashton Carter as a brainy physicist whose expertise and judgment he relied on when Carter served until a year ago as the Pentagon's chief operating officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: He's a reformer who's never been afraid to cancel old or inefficient weapons programs. He knows the Department of Defense inside and out, all of which means that on day one, he's going to hit the ground running.

WELNA: For Carter, this must be a vindication. Two years ago, he was passed over for the job Hagel's now leaving. Carter left no doubt today that he, unlike some others whose names got mentioned in recent days, very much wanted this job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ASHTON CARTER: It's an honor and a privilege for me to be nominated for the position of secretary of defense. General Scowcroft, my longtime mentor, thank you for being here.

WELNA: That would be General Brent Scowcroft, a Republican who served Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush as national security advisor. Also on hand was President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Their presence underscored Carter's broad bipartisan support from Washington's national security establishment.

Zoe Baird is an attorney and Democrat who wrote a report with Carter in the late '90s arguing that the Pentagon, not just law enforcement, should deal with terrorism. She considers him visionary as well as practical.

ZOE BAIRD: He is able to look out ahead and see what's coming. And he's also very skilled at addressing the budgetary challenges.

WELNA: In an interview in July with Charlie Rose, Carter said the Pentagon over the past decade had an almost single-minded preoccupation with counterterrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

CARTER: Now is the time to look up and look around and get out of that foxhole, if you like, and look in at the problems and opportunities are going to define America's future. That takes you to other parts of the world, like the Asia-Pacific. It takes you to new kinds of domains like cyber.

WELNA: Carter is credited with prodding the Obama Administration to pivot to Asia and the Pacific and to focus on cyber warfare. But he now faces a new war against Islamic State, Russian expansionism and doubts about troop drawdowns in Afghanistan.

Arizona Republican John McCain will preside over Carter's Senate confirmation hearings. McCain likes Carter but worries he'd be stymied by a White House that wants to make all the decisions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: It doesn't matter whether he's strong or weak. He's excluded from the major decision-making process which is handled by a handful of people who have never heard a shot fired in anger.

WELNA: Others who know Carter insists he would not be a pushover. Rhode Island's Jack Reed will be the top Democrat at Carter's confirmation hearings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JACK REED: I don't think he would accept it unless he felt he had the authority and discretion to do what was in the best interest of the men and women in uniform.

WELNA: Today at the White House, Carter promised the president he would, if confirmed, give him his most candid strategic and military advice. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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