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Carter nomination for defense post shakes up leadership, not policy

Julie Pace Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The nomination of policy wonk Ashton Carter to lead the Defense Department marks the most significant change to President Barack Obama’s beleaguered national security team in nearly two years. But there is little indication the shake-up portends a broader shift in administration policy – nor is it clear that Carter can break into the president’s tight inner circle.

Obama announced Carter’s nomination at the White House Friday, praising the Pentagon veteran as an innovator and reformer who can quickly step back into an administration grappling with security challenges in the Mideast, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

“When we talked about this job, we talked about how we’re going to have to make smart choices precisely because there are so many challenges out there,” Obama said.

The nomination of Carter, a physicist who has served two Democratic presidents at the Pentagon, is expected to be easily confirmed by the new GOP-controlled Senate.

“Ashton Carter has the knowledge and capability to serve as secretary of defense during these difficult times,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I expect he will face tough questions at his confirmation hearing about President Obama’s failing national security policy, but I expect he will be confirmed.”

Carter would replace Chuck Hagel, who resigned last week under pressure from Obama. Hagel had been scheduled to attend the nomination ceremony, but abruptly backed out Friday morning.

Administration officials say Obama decided to make a change at the Pentagon after determining that Hagel, the Republican former Nebraska senator, wasn’t up to the job of managing a burgeoning military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The military is also increasing its presence in Eastern Europe, aimed at deterring Russian aggression, all while grappling with deep budget cuts.

Carter, who has held numerous high-level jobs at the Pentagon under Obama and in the Clinton administration, ended his most recent tenure at the department in late 2013, before the Islamic State became a U.S. priority and before Russian President Vladimir Putin began maneuvering in Ukraine.

“The world has changed since he departed,” said Julianne Smith, a former White House national security official who worked closely with Carter during Obama’s first term. She said he appears to share Obama’s preference for taking military action alongside international partners, as in the current campaign against the Islamic State.

“He is not someone I get the sense who would want to see the U.S. pursue something unilateral unless direct U.S. interests were at stake,” added Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

In brief remarks Friday, Carter pledged to give the president “candid military advice” – a statement seen by some as an attempt to reassure those in the Pentagon who felt Hagel had little influence.

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