The Brass

A ‘Dynamic’ Moment

The Pentagon's policy chief on the crises in Iran, Afghanistan, Asia, and more.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On September 19, Foreign Policy's National Security channel sat down for an exclusive interview with Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, who succeeded his longtime colleague Michele Flournoy in February. As the Pentagon's policy chief, Miller's portfolio encompasses the full range of national security issues facing the Defense Department -- many of which have heated up just in the past week.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Miller rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's calls to establish "red lines" with Iran ("We have time and space to work on this and to have sanctions continue to have a significant effect"); he insisted that the pivot to Asia is no military challenge to China (even though "a lot of the Air Force's best stuff is going to be deployed in the Pacific, maybe their most capable systems"); and he defended the Obama administration's much-criticized "reset" with Russia ("I would make the case that our relationship with Russia and our ability to work with them has been absolutely critical ... to make progress and sustain it in Afghanistan and to the P5+1 process to increase pressure on Iran").

Below, an edited transcript of Miller's conversation with the E-Ring's Kevin Baron and Situation Report's Gordon Lubold.

On September 19, Foreign Policy‘s National Security channel sat down for an exclusive interview with Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, who succeeded his longtime colleague Michele Flournoy in February. As the Pentagon’s policy chief, Miller’s portfolio encompasses the full range of national security issues facing the Defense Department — many of which have heated up just in the past week.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Miller rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls to establish "red lines" with Iran ("We have time and space to work on this and to have sanctions continue to have a significant effect"); he insisted that the pivot to Asia is no military challenge to China (even though "a lot of the Air Force’s best stuff is going to be deployed in the Pacific, maybe their most capable systems"); and he defended the Obama administration’s much-criticized "reset" with Russia ("I would make the case that our relationship with Russia and our ability to work with them has been absolutely critical … to make progress and sustain it in Afghanistan and to the P5+1 process to increase pressure on Iran").

Below, an edited transcript of Miller’s conversation with the E-Ring’s Kevin Baron and Situation Report’s Gordon Lubold.

FP: So, how did you get this job, and what’s on your plate coming into office this year?

UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MILLER
: This may sound cliché, but the fact is I find it an incredible honor to serve in government — to come into government to work for President Obama, Secretary Gates, now Secretary Panetta, and to do so at a time when our military is at war, and to do so at a time that’s so dynamic, in terms of where things are going, not just in Afghanistan, say, but globally, as well as we are at a key phase for our country. And as we are looking at our own budgetary concerns and so forth, it’s just an incredibly interesting and engaging time to be in government and to serve.

The single most important thing to me is serving at a time when we have our people in harm’s way, and the ability to contribute to policymaking in that context.

Working for — coming in and working for Michele Flournoy was great. You asked me how I got the position. The president, Secretary Gates and Michele asked me to take it. She’s been a great friend. She’s been my boss three times. This was the third time. And I was just, I was, again, I don’t want to sound totally old-school and old-fashioned about it, but — I didn’t seek the job of under secretary, but when I was offered it I was greatly honored and honored to serve.

I guess I could add one thing — I have an incredibly supportive wife. I have five kids.

FP: So you have two jobs?

MILLER: The support of my family for me to come in as a principal deputy and then to stand as undersecretary is what is, just vitally important, I wouldn’t have done it without their support. In a sense it’s what — their love and support is what sustains me through some long days and gives me a degree of resilience that I don’t think I would otherwise have.

FP: I’m particularly interested in some Afghanistan issues and was fortunate enough to get back from there a couple weeks ago, a brief trip, spoke with [ISAF commander] General [John] Allen. There are a couple of issues: Briefly to what degree do you see policy implications in this spate of insider attacks? Also, where do you see the laying the groundwork for post-2014 relationship to the degree that you’re focused on it? Also, something that I’ve been hearing a lot from military commanders, but also other people: Is there too much focus by the U.S. government on security transition, not enough on political transition? My sense is the military feels somewhat hamstrung by the U.S. inability to articulate what comes next.

MILLER: Well, let me take just a half-a-step back. If you look at the events over the last year or so and start last spring with the detention [memorandum of understanding] — which is currently the topic of some conversation I know — detention MOU, the special operations MOU, the Strategic Partnership Agreement; go to Chicago and have this incredibly strong support for Afghanistan from NATO; go to Tokyo and have the economic aid; look at the transition that’s occurring with the third tranche; we have 75 percent of the Afghan population that is in an area that is now in transition; we’re well on the way to meeting the target for 352,000 for the Afghan National Security Forces, expect to still meet that by the end of October; and meanwhile this has been accomplished during a period where we will have drawn down our forces by the end of September from, ballpark, 91,000 to 68,000.

So you see, in terms of the — and I could talk about the quality as well of the ANSF, Afghan National Security Forces — so you see, I think, a tremendous amount of progress. You see in the Afghan government and their coalition partners, both making progress and having a strong narrative. And now, I think, in a sense, it is unsurprising that to a degree you’d see the insurgency and the Taliban look to new tactics to try to regain or try to gain some momentum. The so-called green-on-blue attacks, or insider attacks, have been a very small fraction of overall casualties during this conflict. We see them still compared to [improvised explosive devices] for example, still being a relatively small fraction, but it does appear and it does make sense that the Taliban would look to emphasize and increase their effort in this area.

And so, then, if you talk to John Allen on this issue, you’d know that both ISAF and the Afghans are taking a wide range of measures to reduce exposure and to improve our combined posture, including through counter-intelligence and other steps to reduce this risk, the risk associated with insider attacks.

In that regard, I think that there’s no acceptable insider attack. But we have to also understand that even while we want them to be zero, that we have to be prepared that they can occur because the Taliban is likely to see them as a promising tactic from their perspective. So, I won’t go through it all but there’s a substantial set of actions that ISAF is taking.

With respect to our enduring commitment: the fact that we have both the United States and NATO and a number of individual countries committing to support both the ANSF post-2014 and economically post-2014, and people talk about the decade of transformation that is roughly 2015 to 2024, is incredibly positive and ought to give a sense that there is not just a U.S. commitment but an international commitment, frankly, not to remake the mistake of the past of not following through with respect to Afghanistan.

FP: Do you mean the lessons learned from Iraq?

MILLER: No, I mean if you look at what happened after the Soviets departed. At that point in time, a little bit of assistance may well have helped put Afghanistan on a path toward stability.

FP: So what’s the focus in this building for those next steps for after Tokyo. Are you working on SOFA?

MILLER: It’s an interagency effort as you look at the lines of operation relating to Afghanistan, so we will expect to be starting up the negotiations on a bilateral security agreement. That will be a follow-on to the strategic partnership agreement and expect that to get underway this fall. At the same time, we will — while the security transition is a key focus for the department of defense, as a government we also will continue to work on other areas, including reconciliation. So reintegration of fighters within Afghanistan and then the broader reconciliation effort, as well, which really goes over to [U.S Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan] Marc Grossman, who has the lead.

FP: On reconciliation, that makes me think of the Haqqani network. After the State Department’s terrorist-organization designation, what comes next? What’s the plan to eliminate Haqqani as a threat and/or bring them to the table? How do you make that happen?

MILLER: The answer is: Yes.

We continue to be — obviously, as you’ve seen by multiple statements — to be very concerned by the Haqqani network and the threat it poses to Afghanistan. And at the same time, at the point at which they are ready to enter into a reconciliation process and to meet those requirements, they would not be prescribed from doing so. And in our view it would be very much in their interest to do so.

FP: But are you at a point, though, that you need a Plan B? I mean, what indications do we have that that’s going to happen?

MILLER: I wouldn’t put in those terms. What I’d say is that what we can try to do, what we can work to do, is to create conditions. And, so continue to put pressure on the Haqqani network, continuing to do that, continuing to work within Afghanistan to do that, and also in — work with our, encourage our partner in Pakistan to do so, you know, within Pakistan.

At the end of the — ultimately they will have to make the calculation through, for a combination of reasons, that it makes sense of them to engage in that effort. And what we can do is work to create those conditions, including to show them that the other path for them is not going to be successful.

FP: Are you optimistic that threat or that narrative will start to unfold here in the next year and a half? Can you be optimistic and are you?

MILLLER: I’m convinced that we have a lot of momentum. And I walked through, before, some of the major milestones. And I believe we can sustain that momentum and build on it.

There’s no doubt that we will have setbacks, including various type of attacks, but at the same time with the commitment of the international community, of our ISAF partners — you know we talk about, you know, with respect to the Afghans, we talk about "shoulder-to-shoulder," or shona b’shona. And with our allies and partners, "in together, out together." If we keep both of those in place, even as we reduce our force posture and increasingly shift the weight onto the Afghan shoulders, we — recognizing that it’s a hard conflict and that there will be continued challenges — I am optimistic about our prospects for success.

FP: But some people would say this suspension of joint operations could lead to a beginning of the end of the partnership. Do you see it that way, and are there strategic implications to this?

MILLER
: We have a commitment to continue through our ongoing effort in Afghanistan. We have a very sensible transition plan. And I think we have to expect that there are going to be places where it’s challenging and it’s a bouncy road.

But at the same time, we have a plan, it is — there are elements of it that remain to be flushed out. What does the enduring commitment look like post-2014? What does the — we know some of the major milestones from the end of September to that point, but identifying those milestones and considering the way in which we conduct the transition on the security side, the way in which we again are looking at another part of the effort, that we encourage and facilitate economic development.

You see my little piece of that that I pay particular attention to is the task force on business and stability operations, and which reports to me and have a, you know, very talented guy working that. It’s one piece of the economic work, but it’s an important piece.

This is not, this is not an easy, this is not an easy task. But it’s one to which we are committed, and as I said, I think we’ve made very significant progress, and we need to continue to work to sustain that progress.

FP
: On Iran, last week we had "red lines" and then we had [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu saying he thought there would be enrichment within six months. What I want to get more clarity on is, we keep hearing about the "threshold" — that at some point if Iran decides they’ve got, then — there’s that one-year to one-and-a-half years Panetta told us, last week, before they could actually have a weapon.

What’s more concerning: the enrichment ability that Netanyahu is talking about, or this decision that Secretary Panetta is talking about? What’s the bigger threat, deciding to do it or having the capability to do it?

MILLER: The president has said, I think, incredibly clearly, our policy is one of prevention. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As we look at the intelligence, we believe that we have time and space to accomplish that, and the timeline that Secretary Panetta talked about is precisely right.

And the — at the same time we also recognize, you know, have very frequent conversations with the Israelis, understand their perspective. We have made the case to them, and as you’ve seen evidence of, that there is time and space, that sanctions have come, not only come into effect but begun to have very significant effect on Iran, and that it will, it may, take some time before the Supreme Leader, before Iran, makes a calculation.

FP: But that enrichment, if it’s six months from now, that doesn’t change this department’s timeline or view of the threat?

MILLER: The timeline, from our perspective, includes the question of how long it takes to enrich, and then how long it would take to go from a certain level of enrichment to weapons grade, and other steps in that process. And so, as we look at that potential timeline we certainly believe, as I said, that we have time and space to work on this and to have sanctions continue to have a significant effect, and a growing effect on Iran and to allow that to help influence their decision-making.

FP: Shifting gears again. Your boss is traveling in Asia. I’m really interested in the pivot, or the rebalancing as you call it. We talked to the secretary the other day. Where do you feel the major muscle movements, not necessarily the deployments, but the thinking inside the building about really rebalancing? Where are the resources going to be flowing? The Air Force and Navy are particularly interested in that question.

MILLER: It’s a terrific question, and there are multiple different entry points for it, but let me start with the resource side.

I think the place where we’ve talked the most at this point is our plan to have 60 percent of our naval assets, basically a 60/40 split, by 2020. That’s a degree of rebalancing. And as you look at the prospect of the Navy coming down, that involves some significant choices and a focus of investment.

What we see with respect to the Air Force is sustained presence in the region and we’ve got — I can’t give you the numbers in the same sense I did for the Navy — but in addition to sustaining that presence it’s also about the quality of the forces.

What that means is that a lot of the Air Force’s best stuff is going to be deployed in the Pacific, and maybe their most capable systems. You see the good news just close to two days ago with [Japanese] Defense Minister Morimoto announcing that they’ve determined that the MV-22 — I know I switched from the Air Force to Marine Corps — the MV-22 is good to go. And you look at F-22 deployments as well for the Air Force. So building on the historic and critically important alliances we have in the Pacific, including our force posture on the peninsula and in Japan, and I know you said not just about posture, but we are looking to build out and broaden and diversify that posture as well. And you see that with the Marines at Darwin, you see with the four LCS [littoral combat ships] at Singapore. You know that we’re in conversations with the Philippines.

FP: And the Vietnamese.

MILLER: India is a good example because it is much more than posture. Over the years we’ve gotten to a pretty significant level of exercises, including Malabar, with the Indians. And what our conversation now is how do we take those exercises to a higher degree of sophistication, which ones should we — where do we think about working together, multilaterally, on these exercises, and really looking to build out that critically important partnership.

FP: The criticism on the pivot, though, is that it sounds like a little bit of talking out of both sides of your mouth — that we’re shifting all these forces to Asia-Pacific, but that it’s not about China. That’s what Panetta just said on his trip; General Amos [the Marine commandant] I think restated it last night. For a lot of Pentagon watchers in this town, they just don’t buy it. They think of course it’s about China. What else in that region would this be about?

MILLER: Well, even if we only had that one map up there [points to his office wall], if you look at the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s just an incredible, we have as a nation, if you look at where we’re situated — I should have a globe here on the table — we have long-term very strong interests, vital interests in the Asia-Pacific, and that includes an interest in the security of our allies and partners, but it also includes our economic interests. And we have been as a nation a force in support of stability in the region that all the actors have benefited from, our presence, in the post-World War II period.

And so the work that we do, whether it’s looking in small areas to partner with the Chinese on anti-piracy or humanitarian assistance, or more broadly the naval presence that we have and partnerships we have that are about keeping the sea lanes of communication open, the interest in stability and the interest in having our interests and other countries’ interest in having a principles-based approach to resolving conflict as you look at the South China Sea, the East China Sea, et cetera, et cetera. We have and other states have an interest in that.

We still, as Secretary Clinton has said, we still have this question, and it’s a question we have to work on directly with the Chinese, and the question is, can we manage the rise of a new power in an international system, with the presence of a great power in a way that not only avoids war but promotes stability.

That’s a common challenge. History is mixed, as you look at this. I guess we have said — and I see it by your look, that you have a, as you should as a reporter, a skeptical eye on these issues — but China is a rising power and we acknowledge and welcome its rise and want to both, through what we do bilaterally and what we do a region, to help provide an environment where that is successful, where we both take advantage of where we can both work together, which is counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and so on, and where there are potential friction points, that we have both a political relationship and a mil-to-mil relationship where we can have those conversations and reduce any possibility of misadventure.

FP: A Russia question: Is it maybe time to reset the "reset"? Part of the report card says they’re not helping in Syria the way you want, they haven’t joined the NATO radar nets like Gates had offered, we’ve even got generals still threatening to strike missile defenses. So what’s your answer to the criticism, is this administration too naïve with Russia?

MILLER
: We have very strong interest in cooperating with Russia in every area that it makes sense to do so, and there are a lot of them. I’ll just pick a couple. Look at what we have been able to achieve and, really, needed to achieve through the Northern Distribution Network. If we didn’t have partnership with Russia where that was in the cards, then we would have had some enormous challenges when the ground lines of communication closed down in Pakistan.

We continue to work on a range of issues, I could — we have, I’ve led our discussions over the past several years for a number of sessions over the course of the last two years in particular with the Deputy Defense Minister [Anatoly] Antonov on missile defense cooperation. I don’t think we’re naïve about that. They have not made a political calculation that they want to move forward with missile defense cooperation. We continue to believe and make the case that it’s in both of our interests and it’s in NATO’s interest, as well, to do so. And I don’t see any — I see evidence that that’s right, and I think we ought to and we will continue to work on that with Russia.

With respect to other areas, I think you have to acknowledge that in some areas we’ve had really good cooperation; in other areas we’ve had significant challenges.

[Knocks wood side table.]

On P5+1, on Iran, we’ve had pretty good support from the Russians. And we know that they are going to — we know that President Putin and his administration are going to pursue their interests, and what we need to be able to do is to find the areas where we can work together, build those out and be able to have the conversations on those areas where we have different perspectives or where we have different interests.

I know that that doesn’t answer each of the challenges. But I would make the case that our relationship with Russia and our ability to work with them has been absolutely critical to our ability to sustain progress, to make progress and sustain it in Afghanistan, and to the P5+1 process to increase pressure on Iran. And, so, for two of our most important issues, we have been able to make good progress with them.

And yes, there are a number of others that are a work in progress.

Policy’s a good organization. And I’m not claiming credit for it. It’s just that we have a bunch of great folks. And one of the wonderful things about being undersecretary is being able to work with the extraordinarily talented folks we have here.

FP: You have a lot of young staffers on policy.

MILLER: Yeah, yeah.

FP: You hear about the young staffs on Capitol Hill running stuff, but here I don’t think people expect that.

MILLER: Yeah, now that I’m a grisly old under secretary let me say that we just — we have some folks who are my age and even older who are also performing very well. But the energy inside and really both new ideas and networking that folks bring in, including our Presidential Management Fellows, as they come in, it just gives a lot of juice to the organization.

And if you look at our org chart, it looks very hierarchical. I look at how we operation, and I have action officers that are going up to brief the secretary of defense, I have them not just traveling with him and so forth, but no kidding engaging in the substantive discussions. And I think it’s the right way to provide support, get the person who’s the best networked and the most knowledgeable, and it also hopefully makes it a good environment to work in, as well.

FP: How old are you?

MILLER: 53.

Cara Parks is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to that she was the World editor at the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and has written for The New Republic, Interview, Radar, and Publishers Weekly, among others. Twitter: @caraparks

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