There’s a new Yoda at the Pentagon.
Jim Baker, a retired Air Force colonel, has been tapped to run the Pentagon’s legendary Office of Net Assessment, taking over from Andrew W. Marshall, who recently retired after four decades running the Pentagon’s internal think tank.
Marshall was 93 years old when he stepped down late last year as the Pentagon’s top strategic guru. His reverential nickname, “Yoda,” reflected his wizened appearance, fanatical following in defense circles and enigmatic nature, all of which were said to evoke the Jedi master of “Star Wars” fame.
Baker, who currently serves as a top adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was chosen by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who passed over several of Marshall’s acolytes who were in the running for the position, according to officials familiar with the decision. His selection reflects Carter’s desire to shift the focus of the office, which has concentrated on long-term threats to the United States that were often overlooked by a Pentagon consumed by more immediate concerns.
Under Baker’s leadership the office will focus more on near-term threats, while still thinking about the future.
Marshall, whose national security career began in 1949, was credited with anticipating the fall of the Soviet Union. During his tenure at the small Pentagon think-tank, which reports directly to the defense secretary, Marshall groomed and mentored some of the country’s most prominent, influential defense thinkers and national security strategists.
“This choice would seem to be a sign of divergence from the Office of Net Assessment of the past,” said retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, who worked for Marshall and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Many in the Pentagon assumed that one of Marshall’s followers, trained in his distinctive style of analysis, would take over the office.
Hendrix, however, said there were similarities between Marshall and his successor. “Baker’s reputation is as a discrete adviser,” Hendrix said. “He’s willing to be the guy behind the guy behind the guy. That’s a continuation of Marshall’s method of operating.”
Baker has served as a top, behind-the-scenes adviser to both retired Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Although not well know outside of the Pentagon, he’s considered a respected and influential voice inside of the Defense Department.
Marshall’s effectiveness and access to the top levels of the Pentagon tended to depend on the defense secretary. Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned in late 2006, was the last Pentagon boss to rely heavily on Marshall’s office.
In recent years Marshall was criticized for treating a future conflict with China as inevitable. His office’s $10 million annual budget has also come under scrutiny as the Pentagon faced budget cuts. Some close to Marshall worried that his successor wouldn’t have the same freedom.
“Andy Marshall’s successor should be a lot like him — someone who will focus on long-term scenarios and will raise inconvenient truths,” said Michael Pillsbury, a former official in Net Assessment official.