Morale booster: WH was still looking for alternatives to Ash Carter while finalizing his SecDef nomination

You can’t appreciate what an insult this is to Carter without reminding yourself first that no one wants this job. Hagel was brought in to rubber-stamp White House management of the Pentagon, then dumped when Obama needed someone to blame for his directionless foreign policy. Who’d want to step into those shoes, especially in the last two years of an increasingly lame lame-duck presidency? Nor have administration officials tried to hide the fact that Carter wasn’t their first choice. Michele Flournoy and Jeh Johnson were both apparently higher on the depth chart but said no.

Filling this vacancy is, in other words, more a case of Carter doing Obama a favor than vice versa and it’s already come with a heap of embarrassment. So how is Carter rewarded for being game? With a new kick in the nuts — a little PSA from within the administration that not only wasn’t he their first choice but they were still hoping to find someone else even while putting the finishing touches on his nomination. There’s a morale booster for you.

Michele Flournoy, was not a fully vetted and selected candidate by the time Hagel resigned, and that she pulled her name after talks with the White House. Several people familiar with Flournoy’s thinking say she decided to withdraw her name in part out of concern over dealing with White House micromanagement…

Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan also said they did not want the job.

That essentially left Ash Carter as the last candidate under serious consideration. But on Tuesday, as the final touches were putting on the White House plans to announce Carter, still another administration official said the White House was going back one more time to see if there were other possible higher profile candidates. Carter is deeply respected inside the defense establishment, and has a long track record serving in a number of Pentagon jobs, but he is not likely to bring significant change to the Pentagon. Nearly one dozen Pentagon officials CNN has spoken to say they doubt this White House really wants a secretary of defense who will offer significant new ideas.

He’s the last guy with any stature who’ll still take the White House’s calls and they’re looking to piss him off right out of the gate too. That’s the sort of smart, smoothly operating government that Barack Obama promised us in 2008. Why Carter doesn’t walk at this point, I don’t know. Maybe he feels a sense of duty to help his country, no matter how demeaning his new job gets, or maybe he assumes these leaks about the White House’s chilliness towards him are coming from a rival camp at the Pentagon that’s looking to undermine him, not from people with the president’s ear. Or maybe it’s a simple matter of being willing to eat crap from Obama’s team to fulfill a lifelong ambition. After all, this may be his last chance to lead the Pentagon: A Republican successor to Obama will choose a Republican whereas President Hillary would be expected to make Flournoy the first woman secretary of defense. If he’s ever going to be in the cabinet, now’s the time. Even if it means taking the most thankless job in Washington.

As for why Obama would be so reluctant to choose him despite his years of experience in defense policy, here’s a clue:

“He is brilliant and driven, a policy wonk equally adept at mastering the bureaucracy,” says a former White House official. “He’s also arrogant, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

That could be a warning sign in an administration that has already burned through three defense secretaries who resented White House micromanagement of their affairs. In Carter, Obama would be choosing a strong-willed independent thinker who believed the U.S. should have left a robust residual troop force in Iraq and believes the military has been asked to swallow dangerously large budget cuts. Carter’s record on nuclear non-proliferation also suggests he could take a harder line on Iran policy than Obama favors.

Not the sort of guy you’d pick if you’re given to surrounding yourself with yes-men like Hagel and Jeh Johnson. He gets along well with Republicans in Congress, though, partly because he’s a hawk, which will be useful to Obama in getting Carter confirmed and later in appropriations matters if Carter plays ball with the White House. If not, we’ll be playing “Who Wants to Be Defense Secretary?” again a year from now.

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