Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department file photo

The Likely Pentagon Chief Who Wanted to Bomb North Korea

Ashton Carter, President Obama's expected pick to replace Chuck Hagel, is also known for being an academic and a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.

The job that seemingly nobody wants has somehow found its perfect fit. Ashton Carter, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, appears to be the president's choice to replace Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. 

So who is Ashton Carter? In addition to holding the top two positions at the Pentagon, Carter is known for being "an uber-wonk," a label bestowed upon him by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey last year. And for good reason.

In addition to having served as the defense department's weapon buyer and a lead budgeteer, as Defense News points out, Carter "received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford in 1979, where he was a Rhodes Scholar."

Despite his understated presence, many are pointing to his call to bomb North Korea as evidence of his mettle. Writing in Time in 2006 when he was out of government and teaching at Harvard, Carter and former defense secretary William Perry called on then-President George W. Bush to launch a "surgical strike" on a North Korean missile.

For the U.S., the risk of inaction will prove far greater. The Pyongyang regime will view its stockpile of missiles and nuclear material as tipping the regional balance in its favor and providing a shield behind which it can pursue its interests with impunity. Worse, North Korea has a long history of selling its advanced weapons to countries in the Middle East, and it operates a black market in other forms of contraband.

It seems worth mentioning that he may have had a point. One year after the piece, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor being built in Syria with North Korea's help. Given what's currently happening, it's difficult to fathom what the region would look like now if Syria had successfully built a plutonium reactor.

But for a more characteristic piece from Carter's body of work, consider his measured "Running the Pentagon Right," a partisan treatise for Foreign Affairs that matches criticisms of the Bush administrations approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with sentences like "the Pentagon also needs to get better at identifying threats as early as possible. This does not mean war-gaming for five to ten years down the line—something the department currently does in its Quadrennial Defense Reviews."