By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday nominated veteran defense expert Ashton Carter as his defense secretary, a job that will require him to tackle messy wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and try to fend off potentially damaging budget cuts.
In Carter, Obama chose a policy expert who has worked for 11 defense secretaries. The 60-year-old Carter pronounced himself ready to give Obama honest, strategic advice once he clears U.S. Senate confirmation, which should move quickly early next year.
He replaces Chuck Hagel, who had privately expressed frustration with the administration's strategy on Iraq and Syria and with his lack of influence over the policy, which was driven by the White House.
Hagel did not attend the White House nominating ceremony, which is customary for departing Cabinet members. He issued a statement praising the choice of Carter as his successor.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president did not feel snubbed, although he said Obama wanted Hagel to be there. "That was a decision that Secretary Hagel made and certainly it’s a decision that’s respected by everybody here at the White House," he said.
FENDING OFF BUDGET CUTS
Officials have said Hagel, who resigned under pressure, had not always spoken up at meetings and seemed out of his depth on the Middle East. In remarks at the nomination ceremony, Carter told Obama: "I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice."
Apart from helping formulate and implement the military campaign against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria and wind down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Carter's big task will be averting across-the-board budget cuts due in 2016.
"His biggest problem coming in will be how to persuade Congress to remove the threat of sequestration in 2016," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon chief arms buyer, said at a luncheon.
He expected Carter, who if confirmed will be Obama's fourth defense secretary, to support ongoing reforms of the way the Pentagon buys weapons, and a drive to invest in technologies to ensure continued military superiority.
Republican Senator John McCain, who will oversee Carter's confirmation hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from January, called him "a highly competent, experienced, hard-working and committed public servant."
But McCain, who has complained of Obama's "micromanaging" of security policy, said: "He will likely have limited influence over the tight circle around the president who apparently control the entire strategic decision-making process."
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Storey and Lisa Shumaker)