Ash Carter Is Looking to the Future. The Mideast Is Keeping Him Stuck in the Past.
The secretary of defense came into office promising to shake up the Pentagon, but the chaos in Iraq and Syria has left him mired in wars he didn't want to fight.
During his confirmation hearing in February, Ash Carter surprised lawmakers by breaking with the Obama administration and saying he was “inclined” to send weapons to Ukraine, whose troops were being badly outgunned by Russian-backed rebels.
During his confirmation hearing in February, Ash Carter surprised lawmakers by breaking with the Obama administration and saying he was “inclined” to send weapons to Ukraine, whose troops were being badly outgunned by Russian-backed rebels.
The comment by the incoming secretary of defense raised eyebrows at the Pentagon and the White House, which had been mired in a bitter debate over whether to arm Kiev. President Barack Obama and his top aides felt it was too early to take such a provocative step, while many in the military felt the United States should send a clear and unmistakable signal to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Some top generals and lawmakers saw Carter’s remarks as evidence that the new defense secretary would have the willingness — and the standing — to go toe-to-toe with the White House on a major issue of national security.
That didn’t happen. In the months since the Feb. 4 hearing, Carter has dropped all talk of delivering weapons to Kiev, which has been steadily losing control of the eastern half of its country to the pro-Russian separatists.
In the Mideast, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State has failed to weaken the militants, but Carter has again been staying the course, rebuffing calls from some of his own generals to deploy U.S. forces closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes or fight alongside the Iraqi troops they’re training.
Carter was the president’s second choice for the job but began his tenure from a position of extraordinary political strength. The administration had forced out his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, and Carter is Obama’s fourth defense chief. No administration in American history has ever had five defense secretaries, and lawmakers from both parties believed this White House wouldn’t want to be the first. Carter was basically untouchable, giving him the leeway to make significant changes across an array of national security issues.
But with only 16 months left before the president’s term ends, Carter is shaping up to be more of a caretaker than a reformer.
Rather than seeking to change administration policies, the 61-year-old defense chief has — to the consternation of many within the military he oversees — instead become an enthusiastic public advocate of them.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in the troubled American-led effort to beat back the Islamic State. U.S. commanders have grown increasingly irritated with the White House’s cautious handling of the war and have pushed for more clarity on the broader strategy and clearer guidance on a range of military options — including an intensified air campaign — but come away without answers, officers said.
“The reality is the door is open to discussions, but the decision process is deferred and deferred, and there’s never a decision,” said one senior military officer. “There’s not a general way forward strategically.”
With Russia wading directly into the Syrian conflict, Carter finds himself at the center of a new strategic crisis. After Russian warplanes launched initial strikes Wednesday, Carter stood at a Pentagon podium and struggled at times to explain the U.S. position — that Washington was fine with Moscow attacking the Islamic State but concerned Russia was instead bombing other opponents of the Damascus regime. But he indicated no change was in the offing in the U.S. campaign and sidestepped questions about whether the United States would protect the rebel fighters it has trained or armed if they come under attack from Russian warplanes.
Avoiding a course correction at the Pentagon may suit a president that has essentially made up his mind on major policies and closed the door on a full-throated internal debate on how to fight the Islamic State and other threats, one former administration official said.
“There haven’t been any big policy debates since [Carter started],” said another former official with experience at the Pentagon. “There hasn’t been the opportunity for disagreement.”
White House opponents say that’s precisely the problem. Sen. John McCain, a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s fight against the Islamic State, gives Carter high marks for his expertise and does not blame the defense secretary for strategies shaped by the commander in chief. That blame, McCain says, should land squarely at Obama’s feet.
“I think Secretary Carter is doing the best job he can, given the arc of crisis our nation confronts around the world,” McCain told Foreign Policy. “But ultimately, he works for the president. And the president remains committed to his failed foreign policy.”
In an interview in his spacious, orderly office at the Pentagon overlooking the Potomac River, Carter said that he supports the fundamental approach to the war against the Islamic State and that he is focused on improving how the strategy is being carried out. Pointing to framed photos on the wall from his visits to Afghanistan over the years, he noted that he had plenty of experience helping to manage combat operations and military strategies.
“The underlying strategic principle — that to have a lasting defeat of ISIL requires capable and motivated ground forces that are local — is sound,” Carter told FP, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “They are, however, not everywhere to be found. And I’ve been very candid when I’ve been secretary of defense [about] where that does not exist and needs to be built.”
The Gates test
Carter isn’t the first recent defense secretary to take office in the last chapter of a presidency and take command of a flailing war effort. Bob Gates, however, managed to make a dramatic impact at the Pentagon within just his first few weeks in office.
During the last two years of George W. Bush’s administration, Gates sent shockwaves through the Pentagon by firing the Army secretary over shoddy conditions for wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Medical Center and sacking the Air Force secretary and chief of staff over the negligent handling of ballistic missile parts.
Gates also helped oversee the troop surge in Iraq that was credited at the time with turning around the war, and cut through bureaucratic inertia to ensure troops in Iraq got heavily armored vehicles that could protect them against roadside bombs. The so-called “mine-resistant ambush protected,” or MRAP, vehicles are thought to have saved the lives of hundreds of American troops.
Obama asked Gates to stay on, and Carter joined his team as the chief weapons buyer, helping to move thousands of redesigned MRAPs to Afghanistan to back up a surge of American troops fighting the Taliban.
Unlike Gates, however, Carter has not yet sacked any generals or other senior figures running the faltering campaign against the Islamic State or the botched training program for Syrian rebels.
But a widening scandal at U.S. Central Command, where the head of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, faces allegations that his office skewed reports to paint a rosier picture of the war against Islamic State, could provide a test of Carter’s leadership and a comparison to the Gates era. The controversy is being probed by the Pentagon’s inspector-general and an array of congressional committees.
The steady stream of damning revelations about the Pentagon’s program to build a moderate force of Syrian rebels could also serve as a “Gates moment” for Carter. But so far, no heads have rolled.
Carter told FP he stood ready to relieve anyone who failed to perform their job, as lives were at stake.
“Accountability is extremely important when you’re involved in war and combat operations,” he said. “And those who can’t show excellence obviously will be held accountable. That’s an important part of leadership here.”
As for suspending officers linked to the alleged manipulation of intelligence at Central Command, Carter said he would wait for the results of an inquiry by the Pentagon’s inspector-general.
“It’s in their hands now,” he said.
Carter, who earned his doctorate at Oxford University in theoretical physics, was a rising star in academia when he found himself drawn to the science and strategy of Cold War arsenals.
As a young research scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, Carter wrote a paper that exposed the shoddy technical rationale behind the proposed “Star Wars” missile shield, which was supposed to protect the United States from a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The report caused a political firestorm and infuriated then-President Ronald Reagan’s White House.
With a burly build, Carter, who was a wrestler in high school, is known as a brilliant but demanding and hard-charging manager who wants results without delay.
He keeps meticulous notes in little black notebooks, which are carefully filed away in chronological order, said his chief of staff, Eric Rosenbach. And he has sometimes reminded a staffer of a request dating back months and even years.
“When he starts writing something down, you should be terrified. Because he’s going to ask you to do something specific,” Rosenbach said.
His impatient manner, and his readiness to share his superior knowledge on an issue, rubs some staffers the wrong way.
But Rosenbach said Carter can be tough with his subordinates because he is keenly aware of the short time he has in office and mentions it frequently to his deputies and aides.
“He’s very explicit with all the senior leaders. He often starts meetings by saying: ‘I’m a man in a hurry. There are important things to do, and I want to get them done,’” Rosenbach said.
Whether he’ll be able to — or wants to go to the mat with a White House reluctant to change course on major issues — remains to be seen.
Carter was tapped for the job after Obama’s top choice, former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy, pulled herself out of the running. When he was picked, Obama was facing mounting criticism over the faltering war effort in Iraq and Syria, and the former No. 2 at the Pentagon was billed as an experienced hand who could bring authority and leadership to a campaign — and a Defense Department — that seemed adrift.
Carter’s predecessor, Hagel, had memorably botched his talking points about the administration’s Iran policy during his own confirmation hearing and never really recovered his footing. He was ultimately pushed out last November in an abrupt, humiliating fashion. Administration officials privately denigrated his performance to reporters, saying he often sat silently in meetings in the White House Situation Room and was overly deferential to the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Days after his confirmation by the Senate on Feb. 12, Carter flew to Afghanistan and Kuwait, where he called a gathering of top commanders and American diplomats overseeing the Middle East.
As cameras recorded the moment, the meeting of generals and ambassadors at Camp Arifjan military base in Kuwait sent a symbolic message that Carter was taking charge and taking stock — and that the war had a diplomatic as well as military dimension.
But Carter did not fly to Iraq on that trip, where around 3,000 American troops are now deployed. His first visit to Iraq would not come until July, five months after taking office.
Speaking briefly to reporters in Kuwait on that trip, Carter expressed confidence in a Pentagon program launched months earlier that was supposed to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.
“It’s one of the key skills we honed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t think there’s any military that does it better. So, I think all of that will be reflected … in the train-and-equip program,” Carter said.
That program, portrayed as a key element of a campaign to defeat the Islamic State, has since turned into an unmitigated disaster. Instead of generating 5,400 fighters in its first year as planned, the program has struggled to find viable recruits who are willing to fight the Islamic State — instead of the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.
The first group of about 50 graduates was promptly ambushed and captured shortly after it crossed into Syria in July.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, admitted to senators last month that only “four or five” fighters from the program were still on the ground.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) expressed disgust at the paltry numbers.
“So we’re counting on our fingers and toes at this point,” McCaskill told the general. “It’s time for a new plan.”
After that hearing, a second group of fighters entered Syria, and they handed over vehicles and ammunition to al Qaeda-linked extremists in al-Nusra Front. The program has been effectively suspended, with Pentagon officials saying no new recruits from Syria would be brought in to be trained in Turkey for the time being.
In his interview, Carter told FP it was “quite evident” that the program needed changes.
“We have a number of recommendations that we have been discussing with the president for how we can adapt. So we will be changing our approach and adapting it,” he said.
So far, though, nothing significant has changed.
The U.S.-led air campaign has continued at roughly the same pace, and the mission of American troops advising and training Iraqi and other local forces has not been fundamentally altered. U.S. troops haven’t been sent closer to the front lines, and Washington has rejected a Turkish request to set up a no-fly zone for refugees fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, remains firmly entrenched across Syria and Iraq, and Syria’s civil war has now created a tidal wave of refugees not seen since World War II. And Russia’s direct entry into the conflict this week has forced Washington to recalibrate its strategy yet again.
U.S. military officials in February had suggested an offensive by Iraqi security forces to recapture Mosul would come in April or May. Now that offensive has been put off indefinitely while the Islamic State has expanded its reach into the country’s western Anbar province and eastern Syria.
In April, Carter traveled to Silicon Valley, where he gave a speech at Stanford University appealing to tech firms to do business with the Pentagon. His office portrayed it as a groundbreaking trip that reflected Carter’s drive to ensure the U.S. military retains its technological superiority. He unveiled plans for an “incubator” office in Mountain View, California, designed to link the Pentagon and the defense industry to tech companies. To connect with the San Francisco Bay Area’s talented workers, the Pentagon needed to cultivate a “coolness factor,” he told reporters.
Less than a month later, the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to Islamic State militants, sending Baghdad government troops into retreat.
At a Pentagon press conference on Tuesday, a reporter asked Carter’s spokesman if the secretary was failing to show firm leadership in the war effort while spending time on other initiatives.
“This is a secretary of defense who is keenly engaged in [what has] happened on the ground, asking questions of his commanders, of his troops in the field, to get at the very best and most effective campaign to ultimately degrade and defeat ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
“This is a central focus of this secretary of defense, but he has many issues that he has to deal with in his job, and they go beyond simply the fight against ISIL.”
Divisions within the ranks
Carter, like his predecessors, must navigate the fraught relationship between the White House and the military, which soured earlier in Obama’s presidency amid discord over troop plans and strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The top brass harbors resentment over Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and senior officers — including retired Gen. James Mattis, former head of Central Command — have blamed the pullout for helping to create a vacuum that the Islamic State was able to exploit. But Obama’s deputies believe the military often tried to force the president’s hand on troop decisions.
The faltering condition of the anti-Islamic State campaign is exacerbating those tensions — and highlighting Carter’s inability to bridge that divide.
There have been consistent calls from within the military and from allies to expand and intensify the air campaign and to allow pilots to go after more targets with greater speed — even if that means risking more civilian casualties. To roll back the Islamic State, some lawmakers and retired officers have proposed embedding U.S. special operations forces with local Iraqi or Kurdish units to direct airstrikes and guide offensives. And Syrian opposition activists and partners in the region say the United States must drop its requirement that Syrian rebels pledge only to fight the Islamic State and not Assad’s regime.
Some current and retired senior military officers favor these moves, including David Petraeus, the former CIA director and war commander in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are not where we should be at this point,” the retired general told senators last month.
Petraeus called for creating safe zones for refugees in Syria and shooting Assad regime helicopters out of the sky with U.S. missiles unless Damascus stops dropping barrel bombs on civilians.
But White House officials reject accusations that their policy deliberations are marked by indecision. “There’s an important difference between questioning whether a particular course of action is appropriate at a given moment and deferring [a decision],” one senior official said.
As for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Carter has backed off his remarks at his confirmation hearing nearly eight months ago. Carter has said that once he came into office, he concluded that sanctions against Russia were the best way to inflict a price on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine — not giving weapons to Ukraine’s military.
Some prominent former officials and top officers in the Obama administration disagree. Flournoy, along with Ivo Daalder, the former NATO ambassador, and retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme commander, have argued that sanctions are not sufficient to deter Moscow and urged Washington to give Ukrainian forces light missiles to counter tanks and armor employed by pro-Russian separatists. The newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, favors sending weapons to Kiev.
Dunford told senators in July that it was “reasonable” to arm the Ukrainians. “And frankly, without that kind of support, then they’re not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression.”
Carter has endorsed a flurry of military exercises and temporary deployments across Eastern Europe that are designed to reassure NATO allies on Russia’s border. That approach was already underway when he took office, and in June he announced in Estonia that a brigade’s worth of tanks and armored vehicles would be prepositioned in Central and Eastern Europe.
But it remains unclear to what degree the U.S. military will expand its presence in Eastern Europe in response to a resurgent Russia and whether Carter will push to station more American forces in the Baltics to deter Moscow.
Islands in the sea
Apart from upheaval in the Middle East and threats from Russia, Carter has faced a brewing crisis in Asia. China has alarmed its neighbors by building artificial islands in the South China Sea at a frenetic pace and taking steps that seem designed to expand its de facto control of the area while making it harder for U.S. ships to operate there.
Carter arguably is more focused on China than any other cabinet member. Several months ago, he asked commanders to draw up possible options to counter China’s vast dredging operation. In May, he gave a sharply worded speech in Singapore demanding Beijing halt its reclamation work and vowing that the U.S. military would sail and fly anywhere international law would allow.
But despite his tough words, U.S. naval ships for the past three years have steered clear of a 12-nautical-mile zone declared by China around the man-made islands, even though other countries and Washington do not recognize the boundary. A group of lawmakers in Congress recently wrote a letter urging the administration to run naval patrols near the outposts to make clear to Beijing that Washington rejected its claims and tactics.
The White House is now weighing whether to send ships and aircraft near the artificial islands to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation, which would mark one of Carter’s most visible changes to administration policy as Pentagon chief.
Parallels with Hagel
Although Carter was expected to represent a sharp break from Hagel’s tenure at the Pentagon, there have been some striking similarities.
Just like his predecessor, Carter’s role has often been overshadowed by a news-making, globe-trekking secretary of state, presently John Kerry, who masterminded the Iran nuclear deal and has heavily influenced the president’s approach to the Middle East and Russia.
In another parallel, one issue that has caused some friction between Carter and the White House also plagued Hagel’s relations with the administration — transferring detainees out of Guantanamo.
Both Hagel and now Carter have been reluctant to approve proposed transfers of some inmates from the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite urging from other government agencies.
Administration officials felt Hagel was too deferential to the advice of military officers who fear the inmates will take up arms against American troops after their release. White House officials privately cited the disagreement as the final straw that helped trigger Hagel’s departure.
But since taking office, Carter also has been cautious about giving the green light to some transfers. He has approved only eight transfers so far, and there are 114 detainees still at the prison.
“Ash has been slow rolling the hell out of Guantanamo,” said one administration official familiar with the issue.
Cook, Carter’s spokesman, said there was no doubt that the secretary shares the president’s commitment to closing the prison at Guantanamo and will continue to weigh transfer cases “expeditiously and deliberately.”
But he added: “The safety and security of the American people will remain his top priority in that process.”
Apart from discord over Guantanamo, Carter — in contrast to Hagel — has inspired confidence in the White House, where his cerebral style and fluency with defense issues is more compatible with the president’s analytical approach, officials said.
“My sense is that he has probably been more of an effective advocate for his building than his predecessor,” one White House official said.
According to his aides, Carter already has left his mark in his unconventional choices for who will lead the Army, the Marine Corps, and the Navy — Gen. Mark Milley, Gen. Robert Neller, and Adm. John Richardson.
Instead of going with favorites suggested by the armed services and the White House, such as Gen. David Perkins for the Army, the head of training and doctrine who led a brigade into Baghdad in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or two longer-serving officers in the Marine Corps, Carter went with candidates who he had worked with in the past and who share his vision of a more agile, more technologically advanced force, officials said.
“His legacy will be in the people he selected,” said one former advisor.
Carter’s supporters in and outside of the government say the defense secretary should be judged not on his effect on war strategy, but on the degree to which he can bring the Pentagon into a new high-tech era.
Carter is worried that if the department does not change how it pursues new technology and recruits its workforce, the U.S. military will lose its edge against China, Russia, and other adversaries — with dire consequences.
To drive home his point, Carter has made two visits to Silicon Valley since he took office — something his predecessors had not done for decades. He has promoted a new public-private research institute, with a modest $75 million in Defense Department funding. And he has high hopes that an incubator office he launched in the area, along with more flexible rules for how troops are recruited, will push the Pentagon closer to what he calls a “force of the future” — and the tech mindset of Silicon Valley.
But the culture of the tech world is light-years away from the staid corridors of the Pentagon, and some Silicon Valley firms remain reluctant to do business with the Defense Department if it means jeopardizing their most important market — China.
“If you are a large tech company, that market is one of the determinants of your success or failure,” said Peter Singer, a tech-savvy analyst and author. “So there’s a limit to the amount of business you might want to do with the Pentagon.”
Carter has worked for defense secretaries dating back to the Reagan White House. But the two most influential role models for Carter are Gates and William Perry, a mentor and close friend who served as defense secretary under Bill Clinton’s administration. Perry is now hailed for investing in stealth and GPS technology, ensuring America’s military superiority for another generation. But to match that record, Carter must overcome time, budget, and political constraints that Perry did not have to contend with.
Carter, with his deep knowledge of just about every facet of the Defense Department, is “the guy you want there at the moment,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior-ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Carter grasps the problems with the Pentagon’s slow-moving bureaucracy and how it must reach out to the tech industry to take advantage of its talented workers and its innovative ideas, Reed said.
But without a political consensus on budgets, and the scrapping of automatic cuts or “sequester” legislation, the technology effort might wither away from neglect and Washington gridlock, he said.
“The budget is going to be the key driver. If we can’t solve this sequestration problem, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything truly innovative,” Reed said.
Carter’s main chance to leave his signature may be over the next few months, when he is expected to roll out a proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2017. That is the only budget he will truly own and be able to shape before his time runs out.
The budget request will offer Carter a chance to weigh in on the future of major weapons programs — including a new long-range bomber that could cost $42 billion over a decade — and the size of the U.S. Army, which could determine the future of the armed forces for years to come.
Carter is not yet halfway through his allotted time, and Pentagon officials suggest his influence will be felt soon on issues ranging from Afghanistan to the future size and shape of each of the military services. He will also have to rule on thorny issues like a highly public spat between the Marine Corps leadership and the Navy secretary over whether to allow women into infantry units. The dispute erupted after the Marines leaked a study of an experimental unit that claimed women were outperformed by their male counterparts in demanding drills.
Carter, however, may have more time at the helm depending on the outcome of the race for the White House. If the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, wins the 2016 election, Carter could be asked to stay on.
For the moment, Pentagon officials said Carter is preparing “strategic bets” that will plant seeds in key technologies, including in space, robotics, and cyberwarfare that will come to fruition in the years ahead.
Carter scoffs at the idea that 16 months offers him too short of a window.
After all, Carter said, he oversaw the effort that rushed MRAP vehicles to troops in Afghanistan in about the same amount of time.
“I sometimes laugh and say to people that only in Washington is 16 months considered a short time,” he said.
But Carter admitted that some of his initiatives will still be in train when he leaves.
“I’m not going to be able to finish everything I start, but I will be able to start a great deal,” Carter told FP. “And I will be able to start it in a way where I believe the logic of continuing it, and the benefits of continuing it, will be so self-evident that they’ll be continued after I’m gone.”
The Pentagon’s priorities, however, can shift quickly. More than a thousand of the MRAPs that Carter helped ship to Afghanistan in record time were discarded after the bulk of the U.S. force withdrew from the country, because it was too expensive to ship the heavy trucks back to the United States. The hulking vehicles were chopped up and sold for pennies-a-pound for scrap metal in Afghanistan. And others that were never used in the field were provided to the campus police department at Ohio State and to small-town police forces in towns like Dundee, Michigan, and Walla Walla, Washington.
In the end, the fate of Carter’s initiatives will be in the hands of his successor, who will decide whether or not to carry on his agenda, said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science at George Washington University and author of books on the American military and foreign policy.
“If Carter plants those seeds, the question is whether the next gardener will keep watering them,” Biddle said.
Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Dan De Luce was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.