The Complex

Meet the Pentagon's Most Powerful Female Official Ever

Christine Fox, a former defense official and Hollywood inspiration, will be the new Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, making her, at least temporarily, the highest-ranking woman ever in the Defense Department. She replaces the outgoing Ash Carter, who retires Wednesday as the Pentagon's equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer.

Fox, the former director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office, led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's Strategic Choices and Management Review, the top-to-bottom assessment of Pentagon spending and resources that framed the decisions to be made in the age of cutbacks and sequester. 

Fox's appointment is temporary until an individual for the permanent job can be identified, vetted and confirmed, a senior defense official said. That's a process that could still take many weeks - or months.

"I think we're getting close," a senior defense official told Foreign Policy, referring to the final choice for a permanent candidate.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Fox a "brilliant defense thinker and proven manager" in a statement released Tuesday morning. "She will be able to help me shape our priorities from day one because she knows the intricacies of the department's budget, programs and global operations better than anyone," Hagel said.

Fox is not thought to be in the running for the permanent position, defense officials said. But given the ability of the Senate to confirm White House nominees, she could be in the position for at least several months.

Fox will not require Senate confirmation. Under what's known as the Federal Vacancy Reform Act, the President can designate a senior employee to serve in a senior job if that the individual has served in a senior role in the Department for at least 90 days within the last year.

Fox's appointment means she will become the first woman to serve as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense - and the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon ever. She is also a bit of a celebrity, at least for the Pentagon: she was the inspiration for the Kelly McGillis character "Charlie" in the Tom Cruise movie about Navy fly boys, Top Gun.

Still on the short list for the permanent position is Bob Work, the Navy's former No. 2 civilian, now at the Center for a New American Security. Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale is well liked and could also get the nod, although some officials describe him as wanting to retire after being in the job since early 2009.

Fox will have her work cut out for her. While some see her as a perfect fit who can hit the ground running, she is also viewed as someone who is too Navy-oriented (she used to run the Center for Naval Analyses, now CNA) and her work as director of CAPE may not be seen as preparing her for "the whole enchilada" of running the Department.

Carter -- who became former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's "alter ego" -- was heavily involved in running the day-to-day operations of the Department. That has begun to change under Hagel, who has yet to possess the institutional knowledge required for the job but has signaled that he wants to be a more hands-on Pentagon chief. That left Carter, considered to know the building well and someone who had established strong managerial chops, somewhat frustrated about his role. Carter had been considered for the Pentagon's top job but was passed over when Hagel got the nod, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would leave.

Fox had worked closely with Carter while she was a CAPE, but she had come in under Hagel's direction to lead the strategic review.  While she has analytic and budgetary credentials, she will need to get up to speed as a manager with such a broad portfolio, experts said. And, some have criticized Fox for presenting budgetary choices that were politically palatable but who was less inclined to push for less damaging options.

Fox has kept a low-profile until after leaving CAPE and the Pentagon. But in September, she penned an op-ed in Defense News titled "Stop Pretending Forced Cuts Won't Be Harmful." In it, she argued: "There needs to be a serious national dialogue on what a sensible, sustainable and strategically sound defense budget looks like," adding: "But let's drop the illusion that by efficiency nip and managerial tuck the US military can absorb cuts of this size and of this immediacy without significant consequences for America's interests and influence in the world."

Still, given her knowledge of the building and the budget process, she was considered a no-brainer, especially in a pinch, as the Obama administration scrambles to fill jobs during a presidency that has stumbled in its second term. But Fox's appointment could be useful to Hagel.

"Over the last five years, Christine has played a key role in helping shape solutions to the core challenges facing the Department of Defense," a senior defense official at the Pentagon said in a statement. "Secretary Hagel quickly came to trust Christine's judgment and deep analytical expertise through her leadership of the Strategic Choices and Management Review. Simply put, no one knows the issues as well as Christine and in this new role she will hit the ground running like no one else can."

There had been some thought to giving the temporary job to a service secretary -- say, the Army's John McHugh -- as a stopgap measure. But installing Fox means the senior leadership team at the Pentagon can stay in their jobs.

The Complex

U.S. Commandos About to Kick Their Drug War Mission in Colombia

The $8 billion U.S war on drugs and instability in Colombia has pressed U.S. special operators, air crews and other personnel into a decade-plus operation to solidify security in the South American country. But the controversial mission will likely wind down soon: Colombian officials say they are winning the fight, and the two countries want to move to a new relationship based more closely on shared economic interests, said a senior U.S. administration official.

The comments came a day before Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to meet with President Obama in Washington on an official visit. The U.S.'s security assistance package for Colombia "was always designed to be phased out" as conditions on the ground improved, and "in fact it has been improving" the U.S. administration official said. Ending or revising the mission would mark a significant shift in the sometimes controversial relationship between the two countries, which has centered heavily since 1999 on curbing Colombia's cocaine production and the violent drug lords and insurgent groups funded by them.

Colombia defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno compared his country's battle to attain peace to an American football game on Monday, saying Colombia is in the "red zone," close to scoring a metaphorical touchdown against the violence that has plagued Colombia since the 1960s. But he warned the fight isn't over yet.

"We're in the red zone already, but we're not [past] the goal line yet. So, we've got to make it there," he said during an appearance at the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank in Washington. "We don't want to spike the ball on the 10-yard line. That would be a terrible mistake. We really need to keep doing what we're doing."

If that sounds like a contradiction with the White House's point of view, it likely all comes down to timing. U.S. Army Special Forces and other special operators are expected to continue training the Colombian security forces for the foreseeable future as part of Plan Colombia, the broad-based plan first agreed to by former President Clinton. Since 2000, the U.S. has spent about $8 billion on it, according to a November 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service. That money paid for airplanes, helicopters and development programs overseen by the Statement Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development as the Colombians rooted out notorious organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The defense minister cited a variety of statistics Monday while underscoring the progress in Colombia. There were about 30,000 homicides and 3,000 kidnappings there in 2000, he said, but those numbers have dropped to about 15,000 and 300 annually. At the same time, Colombia fell behind neighboring Peru as the number-one producer of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine. The defense minister said Monday he realizes the war on drugs has its critics, but said fighting it led to a reduction in funding for violent organizations, which in turn led to a reduction in violence.

U.S. special operators played no small role in that. A report released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in May said elite forces from all four branches of the U.S. military have deployed to Colombia since 2000, working closely with Colombian commandos.

"Aided by their U.S. counterparts, Colombian [special operations forces] have led operations that have decimated the FARC, demobilized paramilitary groups and re-established a government presence in every Colombian municipality for the first time in decades," the report said. "... Colombia today is safer and more stable than it has been in generations."

As of 2008, the U.S. had provided the Colombian military 72 helicopters with support services done by the U.S. Army. Conventional U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units also have participated in an interdiction program in which drugs are seized on Colombia's coastal waters and rivers.

Plan Colombia has had its critics, however. In 2008, the GAO noted that U.S.-funded counternarcotics efforts focused primarily on the aerial spraying of crops did not reduce the production of cocaine as much as hoped, in part because farmers responded by implementing effective countermeasures that protected their plants. Human Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, also have called for the U.S. to end military aid, citing allegations of torture, abuse and killing civilians.

Colombia's defense minister, did not bring any of that up on Monday. He did say, however, that his country is open to exploring new relationships in which Colombia's military train forces from other countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Any effort to do so, he said, would be "funded by your funds, but done by our experts, both on police activities and military activities."

EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images