It’s Not a (Totally) Poisoned Chalice

Some “presidential” suggestions for Ash Carter on taking the Pentagon’s top job.


From: President of the United States (POTUS)
To: Forthcoming Secretary of Defense
Subj: The Top Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

First, I want to thank you for taking the job, Ash. After Michèle Flournoy, Jeh Johnson, and Jack Reed all turned down the job before anyone even asked them to serve, a lot of people started to talk about the secretary of defense job as a “poisoned chalice.” I know working with John McCain on one side and Valerie Jarrett on the other won’t be fun, but there is so much to do — even with only two years left. So let me give you a sense of a few of the top things I would like to see you working on.

Islamic State: We need to come together on a coherent strategy and put the foot on the gas pedal. Two key elements will be getting NATO to step up to the plate (and I am personally willing to lean on leaders in Europe) and hopefully energizing the Turks to get in the game with strikes from Incirlik and quickly moving troops into the field. We also need to work with the Jordanians, especially their special forces. Let’s get IS under a three-front war: Peshmerga from the north; Iraqi security forces from the south and east; and first bombing and then Syrian opposition forces from the west. We will soon see they are not 10 feet tall if we put them under multi-axis pressure.

Ukraine and Putin: The key strategic terrain in Europe isn’t southeast Ukraine — it is the six inches between Vladimir Putin’s ears. We have to get his attention and that means reassuring NATO (with strong rotational air, sea, and ground forces); arming the Ukrainian military with effective lethal assistance and cyber-support; and creating real pain for Russia by stretching their forces globally. That means meeting them in the Mediterranean, Arctic, Atlantic, and anywhere else they decide to operate, including the English Channel and the Caribbean Sea. As the price of oil falls through the floor, their disposable cash for operations and new expensive weapons systems will dwindle, and we can help pressurize them along the way. And the White House will support you by keeping the sanctions viable.

Cyber: We are far behind where we should be in cyberspace operations. Let’s start by splitting the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, as both jobs are expanding rapidly in scope and scale — having one officer commanding both, even one as good as Adm. Mike Rogers, is a mistake. Let Mike take Cyber Command, and turn the NSA over to a highly qualified civilian with both technical and legal training. We also need to be exploring offensive cyber-capabilities, developing cyber-doctrine (starting with defining just what an “attack” means and what our range of responses should be), and building the outline of a true U.S. Cyber Force to stand alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The Chinese and Russians are already doing so and we cannot afford to fall behind.

Third offset strategy: Take a good look at the paper from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments on the idea of a new “offset” strategy. This would be the third one since the 1950s “New Look” and the 1970s “Offset Strategy” and the idea would be to find our technological and organizational edge in facing potential 21st-century opponents. The idea of a triad of cyber-capabilities, special forces, and unmanned systems working together is probably part of it, as is standing up new organizations to operate in a hugely networked era as the “Internet of things” emerges. For example, look hard at the Unified Command Plan — do we really need six geographic combatant commanders when so many challenges are global and don’t respect boundaries? Your deputy secretary, Bob Work, has worked this hard and is a superb source of ideas and insights. Frankly, we are so consumed with the day-to-day crises that we need to consciously step back from the tactical and think strategically. I am not sure anyone is really doing that in the Pentagon and figuring out how to nurture that will be crucial.

Opportunity agenda: It is not all gloom and doom, no matter what David Ignatius and Tom Friedman are always writing about. In addition to the inevitable firefighting, you also have to find time to focus on the positive elements of what the Pentagon can do. Continuing to help our Colombian colleagues as they move toward a peace agreement with the FARC is a good one. Ensuring the Balkans stay on track is another. So is a robust program of disaster relief and humanitarian work, using the tools of smart power. Consolidating our global alliance systems with NATO, the Partnership for Peace nations that were with us in Afghanistan and have real capacity (e.g. Sweden, Austria, Finland), and our Pacific partners (e.g. Japan, South Korea, and Australia) is crucial. Working with the interagency — especially State and USAID, but also the Directorate of National Intelligence, the department of Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury — will yield dividends.

Strategic communications. Get out and tell the story, Ash. You must be the principal spokesman for what this enormous department is all about. Naturally, we want to have coherence and alignment across the executive branch, but that still means you going forth and explaining what our men and women are doing for the nation at every turn. Gen. Martin Dempsey may have a great singing voice, but there is no substitute for hearing from the secretary directly. Craft a strategy for the Pentagon’s message and move it fast.

Two years is not a long pull at the oar, so this may be more a sprint than a marathon. Energy, determination, and a good sense of humor will help, as will a thick skin. The nation is counting on you, and I wish you the best. And good luck at the confirmation hearings — you’ll need it!

Barack Obama

P.S. Does DARPA have anything in the locker over there that can help people quit smoking? Just thought I would check.…

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