And the next secretary of defense will be ...
December 7th, 2012
03:00 AM ET

And the next secretary of defense will be ...

By Mike Mount, CNN

One of the worst-kept secrets in Washington is that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will soon leave his post for a calmer life at his beloved Northern California ranch.

Panetta and those close to him have given no public indication he will leave upon the start of the next Obama administration, but people close to the defense secretary say Panetta is more than ready to retire from his long public service life.

Four choices to replace Panetta seem to be getting the most buzz as the announcement day gets closer.

Security Clearance talked to people inside the Department of Defense, on Capitol Hill and in the defense community about what each potential nominee could bring to the table, and what issues might work against them being chosen by the president for the top job.

Rice vs. Kerry: Weighing the odds of being secretary of state

Here are profiles:

Michele Flournoy

In 2009 when she started at the Pentagon, she held one of the most powerful positions in the building as the under decretary of defense for policy. Considered the number-three position in the Department of Defense under the secretary and the deputy secretary, she was the highest-ranking woman in the building and advised then-Secretary Robert Gates, who was followed by Panetta, on everything from the formulation of national security and defense policy to as oversight of military plans and operations.

When she was tapped for the position, conventional wisdom and hallway buzz, had her being groomed for the top job in the Pentagon upon the eventual departure of Gates.

But Flournoy left the Pentagon a year ago saying she had to start spending time with her family of a husband and three young children.

Those who know Flournoy, including two Pentagon officials who have worked with her, say that may not be entirely accurate, and point to what she actually did in her off time - becoming a senior adviser on Obama's last campaign and spending time at the defense-oriented think tank she co-founded.

The result? Her name popped back up a serious contender for the top Pentagon job.

She has the pedigree for it, with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, and a strong background in defense academia and defense policy analysis. She would bring a sharp and critical mind to the position with the ability to see the small and big picture of how the military should operate post-Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. John Kerry

If the president wants more of a diplomat, a steady hand and somebody who can offer restraint in the face of flexing combat muscle, then the Massachusetts senator could get the nod.

A Vietnam veteran who was awarded three Purple Hearts, Kerry is no stranger to the military. But most of his political career has been dealing with foreign policy - some say that is a benefit when heading up a war department. Kerry has also made strong connections in Pakistan which could be beneficial as the U.S. begins to wind the war down in Afghanistan.

"This administration will be facing possible conflict with Iran and a build up of Chinese influence around Asia, and (to have) somebody who can offer some restraint and slow down the drums of military force, Kerry would be a good choice in that aspect," said Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution.

Kerry, a Democrat and former presidential candidate, is also well regarded by both Democrats and Republicans, a major plus for a job that involves plenty of lobbying of Congress. Though he offers a steady hand and can keep the trains running, some say he probably won't be bringing any new big ideas to the job,

Some say his nomination would be a consolation prize to the job he reportedly really wants, that of secretary of state. Some in uniform chuckle at the thought of Kerry walking the halls of the E-ring peering out the window over the Potomac toward the home of the State Department at Washington's Foggy Bottom.

But as a senator, Kerry may not have the management depth needed for the day-to-day operations in the Pentagon some see as crucial for the job. The White House would have to ensure a good number two was at the helm to ensure success of a Secretary of Defense Kerry.

Chuck Hagel

A decorated Vietnam veteran and a staunch supporter of the military, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has positioned himself to stay in military circles. He was senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, and as a senator was a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.

Now the head of the Atlantic Council - a NATO and military -oriented think tank - he is considered an independent thinker and a choice to please Republicans.

However, his stance on Iraq could get him in trouble with Republicans. Hagel blasted the Bush White House, likening the war in Iraq to that of Vietnam, and he later said the Iraq surge was the most dangerous foreign policy "blunder" since Vietnam. That could be a problem for the most senior Republican on Senate Armed Services, John McCain of Arizona, who was a major force behind pushing for the surge.

The White House, responsible for closing the war in Iraq, may not want to start dragging all of that history back up. There is some additional bad blood between the two as Hagel, a fellow Republican senator, did not endorse McCain during his 2008 presidential bid.

He is also seen by many Republicans as being anti-Israel and has called for direct negotiations with Iran's leadership. A lot of baggage to carry around in Washington these days.

But it's that attitude that also might attract Hagel to Obama. Somebody who can show restraint on flexing combat muscle and using the DoD post as more of a diplomatic post as the United States starts facing new challenges outside of the war in Afghanistan.

Some say Hagel getting this current buzz close even as the White House is expected to name its new national security team is surprising, saying his independent streak might be a deterrent.

Ashton Carter

Once a leading contender in Washington buzz, but now thought to be out of the running by many inside defense circles, the current number two at the Pentagon is a classic manager the Defense Department needs to “keep the trains running,” as one former Defense official puts it.

There is also some talk of him being chosen to head up the Department of Energy.

“The number two job needs somebody who takes care of the business side of the Pentagon operations, and Carter fits that bill well.”

But Carter’s problem could be that he lacks the full experience to be Secretary of Defense right now as the White House looks for a smooth transition out of Afghanistan.

Prior to this role, he headed weapons procurement as the under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics from April 2009 to October 2011. In that role, Carter was most noted for accelerating the urgent need for vehicles that protected troops from roadside bombs in Iraq, at the order of then-Secretary Robert Gates.

Carter is considered a top defense-oriented academic mind with stints at Harvard’s Kennedy school and as co-director of the Preventive Defense Project. In the Clinton administration, he was an assistant secretary at the Pentagon for international security policy. Some liken his leadership thinking to William Cohen, one of President Bill Clinton's defense secretaries who focused on internal operations rather than global perspectives.

Carter could still be a strong candidate, but it would depend on what kind of Pentagon President Obama is looking for.

With upcoming budget cuts and shifting focus away from the last two wars, Obama will need somebody to guide that change in Pentagon thinking. Carter could fit that bill.

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Sophia

    Reblogged this on At the Gates of the City and commented:
    In conjunction with my previous post on Michele Flournoy - here's a bigger picture. Despite Kerry being out of the game for now as he's likely getting the job at State...

    December 25, 2012 at 2:38 am | Reply
  2. Kerry? huh?

    So he can all US troops terrorists- yeah we need Kerry. I say Bill Cosby, we need someone with the important credentials.

    December 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  3. deb

    Additionally..though I am not rich, I do know the need for those who are rich in this Country..I am not jealous of their bank accounts..As long as they have a moral brain..Undermining the rich in this Country is not in our best interest..take off that Hat of Jealousy and learn a few things..

    December 10, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  4. deb

    This Country needs to protect itself from itself! With the mind set of casual ignorance, we will soon be over a financial cliff that will cause us to be easy pickings for anyone! It takes money to protect this Country..My question is how much are we going to print out of thin air to keep the perfect man at the helm? If this citizens of the USA are really that concerned about defense, you ought to know it takes MONEY to keep your heads cozy on your pillows at night..that is something we DON'T have!!! So now..Continue to spoil yourself, your children, and vote for a President who seems to weaken us financially. All these efforts for the perfect man will be a joke if we have no money to pay for the weapons we need to really do a Job Well Done! All the lazy asses in this Country flip out over the thought of War..but you better believe that War, and winning has kept you free and allowed you to spoil yourself and your lazy ass children..Thank G-d there are still some in this Country who have a brain, morals, courage, and wisdom..and we have a history of all many who gave their lives to all you spoiled ungrateful people who talk much..and do little to understand the need for financial stability..Bet you even got yourself an Obama phone for free to! Oy Vey!

    December 10, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
  5. Perry

    I would suggest either Hagel or McCain himself. This would help Obama to appeal to the republicans in congress. Hagel is on rocky ground with both parties on certain issues though so it is uncertain how effective his lobbying will be. McCain however has an uncanny ability to bounce back from most all issues with his fellow Republicans and seems to be able to appeal to his Democratic counterparts more effectively than years ago.

    December 10, 2012 at 2:26 am | Reply
  6. trex

    ..............Chucky Hagel would be GREAT PICK. Why, you ask..............Because he is a dyed in the wool Republican, and we ALL KNOW THEY WANT TO BALANCE THE BUDGET,.........so HERE IS OUR MAN............................Maybe those planes built in PA that the military DOES NOT WANT......................you wont get.

    December 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  7. USAPeasant

    Wow, another cabinet head is rolling. Sadly like Hillary, Panetta is one of the few good ones in the Cabinet. Please, oh please do not appoint John Kerry to anything. I think it be wise of Obama to maybe consider Colin Powell.

    December 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  8. KenL

    Lets try it this way. Look up Kerry on Dick Cavett and Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement by John Kerry to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations.

    Kerry and others admitted their crimes and blamed the chain of command for the crimes. No telling how high the charges will go. As involved as congress was in the conduct of the war no way would there be any trials. I personally remember that as an issue then.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  9. helenecha

    The US Secretary of Defense needs to make it a rule to accept the existing situations rather than to blame on or complain about them, for only such a leader is going to be expected to be capable of doing the job by keeping a sustainability right way. And by the way, he or she ought to have the experience working at Pentagon.

    December 9, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
  10. helenecha

    The US Secretary of Defense needs to make it a rule to accept the existing situations rather than to blame on or complain about them, for only such a leader is going to be expected to be capable of doing the job keeping a sustainability right way. And he or she ought to have the experience working at Pentagon.

    December 8, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  11. Wise Latina

    Just pick whichever handicapped lesbian Muslim who's handy. It really doesn't matter who since all the cabinet officers are simply mouthpieces for Obama Maximus Gaius Sulla Felix

    December 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • B

      Talk about handicapped, you display the real problem the country confronts now days, a growing number of uninformed, and thoughtless people..

      December 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
      • Bob

        Hear hear!!

        December 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  12. lucas mbuthia

    Leon panetta has done a great job as the secretaly of defence and the person who will take over should continue with the job well done.

    December 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  13. Bob

    Virginia Senator Jim Webb for Sec of Def!

    December 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  14. KenL

    During a debate with a fellow Swift Boater John O’Neal on the Dick Cavett Show Kerry admitted to conducting war crimes. I recommend you watch the debate where he lists his crimes. You may believe O’Neal was over the top at pushing Kerry on how he and Kerry’s organization did not represent all Vietnam vet. The important point is to cut out all the one banter and find the crimes that Kerry admitted to committing.

    One thing I got from the debate was O’Neal didn’t want to be included in the antiwar groups and just didn’t like Kerry and Kerry wanted to end the war and excuse the war crimes as following orders. The problem I have with, I was following orders, is LT Kerry was in a position to give orders. As a swift boat commander he was responsible for his and his crew’s action. He chose to commit those crimes therefore he should be held responsible for not only his actions but the ones on his vessel.

    We don’t need a war criminal as a Sec of Defense.

    December 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • Richard Larson

      You claim that Kerry admitted War Crimes, but you make no effort to outline what he allegedly did that rose to the level of being a War Crime. I find that to mean that you don't know what you are talking about. Admittedly, there were war crimes committed in Viet Nam, but the commission was by all parties involved, hence no War Crimes trials except for Calley, which in fact was a badly conducted prosecution. In his testimony before Congress, if Kerry had indeed admitted to prosecutable War Crimes, I am certain he would have been tried . Given that lack of action, we must assume that there were indeed none that were actionable, so it would have been more honest had you not brought the allegations forward again.

      December 9, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
      • KenL

        It looks as my reply didn't get posted so here it is again with additions at the end.

        December 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
      • KenL

        I tried to reply with quotes and proof but will not be posted.

        December 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Rudy1947

    "saying his independent streak might be a deterrent."
    Hagel for sure. There is nothing better than an independent think thinker in the world of politics and I see his independence as a plus.

    December 8, 2012 at 7:30 am | Reply
  16. Sophie

    I just hope Leon Panetta could train and work with the new Secretary Of Defense, because the job sounds very in depth, and at times very difficult. I also hope Leon Panetta gets to retire and be at home. I admire his endurance thus far, and he has done a superb job.

    December 8, 2012 at 12:22 am | Reply
    • MCGH1

      If the President picks Senator Kerry, they can high five each other as Secretary Panetta heads to his ranch and
      agree that the chair is taken; well taken.
      No training required.

      December 8, 2012 at 5:20 am | Reply
  17. I CAME TO MY SENCES

    Chuck Hagel because his experience with iraq and his ability to see the glass half full

    December 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  18. Silverado

    Secretary Panetta is one of the best!! He put bin Laden at the bottom of the ocean. Let's hope that his replacement would be an equally kick a$$ secretary.

    December 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  19. helenecha

    The Secretary of Defense of US needs to make it a rule to accept the existing situations rather than to blame on or complain about them. And he or she ought to have the experience working at Pentagon.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  20. The Rosenbergs Were Fried For a Headline

    I am confident that we will appoint the appropriate sociopath.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  21. Andre Isakandar

    many US politician from 2004 until this time 2012 is lazy to read book,please you must read book even that is not Proffessional, if You know story and history this time all is depends by book THE PRIZE by Daniel Yergin;all will wasting time and money if you only see side by side;research by me 2004-2012

    December 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • HoustonOilMan

      I have no idea waht you are trying to say.

      December 10, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  22. qaliqo

    The most important thing the next Secretary of Defense will do is to appear to do nothing. The world must allow the destabilization of the Middle East to continue, without the United States or NATO getting involved. So we must protect Turkey, but only on her current borders; our withdrawal from Afghanistan should complete the noose of chaos around Iran's neck, at which point its proxies will have to do battle with "our" proxies (the ones purchasing American military hardware). This will sap attention from the States' clandestine operations against those who may pose a direct threat to national security, give us leverage and breathing room with friendly nations in the region, and generally make the blood lust of extremists somebody else's problem, allowing America to rebuild herself before resource exhaustion shifts the global playing field to its natural end game.

    December 7, 2012 at 11:03 am | Reply
  23. michaelfury

    "Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor."

    – "Rebuilding America's Defenses", Project for a New American Century, 2000

    "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century happened today."

    – diary of George W. Bush

    http://pulverizedtonearpower.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/pulverized-to-near-power/

    December 7, 2012 at 7:51 am | Reply
    • w5cdt

      Project for a New American Century is a load of right-wing film-flam.

      December 8, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
  24. outspoken

    After little adventure in IRAQ and AFGANISTAN , UNCLE SAM's in trouble, so need to save face with those nominees.

    December 7, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply

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