Army Col. Kurt Taylor, United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Secretariat points out features of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea to Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter during a visit border village of Panmunjom, July 26, 2012. Carter is wrapping up a ten-day Asia Pacific trip meeting partners in Hawaii, Guam, Japan Thailand, India and South Korea. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, The Podcast Interview

What made former Ash Carter so unique among his predecessors was that by the time he became the Secretary of Defense in 2015, he’d already spent nearly 30 years working at the Pentagon. This includes stints as both the deputy Secretary of Defense and as the number three in the department, a position often referred to as the acquisitions tsar.

Ash Carter, who served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2017, is out with a new book Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon. This is not your conventional Washington memoir. Rather, what I found so valuable about the book is that offers a grounds-eye view of how how the world’s largest national security bureaucracy operates. Decisions made at the Pentagon — from the kinds of weapons bought, to the bases that are opened, to personnel decisions — have world-shaping implications. This book takes you inside that decision making process.

We kick off discussing the sheer vastness of the Pentagon. The annual budget of the Pentagon is about half of all discretionary spending in the US —  money spent on government programs excluding things like Social Security and Medicare. This comes to over $700 billion. (For comparison’s sake the budget of the State Department is about $50 billion. And UN peacekeeping budget is under $7 billion.)

We then discuss what he thinks the US–and world–get for that huge investment. We also discuss his views of the role of the United Nations and UN Peacekeeping; and also the significance of the fact that the US has not had a secretary of defense since Jim Mattis left on December 31.

If you have 25 minutes and want to learn some insights on US foreign policy from the leader of the world’s largest national security bureaucracy, have a listen.


Get the Global Dispatches Podcast

Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Stitcher  | Google Play Music​  | Radio Public

Your book almost offers a user/executive guide.

That is exactly how the book is supposed to function. It is an executive guide for future leaders for the Pentagon. It is not a Washington memoir, it is different.

What are we talking about when we say the Department of Defense?

Firstly, employees. It has more employees than Amazon, FedEx, McDonalds, Target, and GE combined. It does more R&D than Apple, Google, and Microsoft combined. It has the largest real property ownings than any institution in the world. Its budget is larger than the GDP of all but very few countries. It is the largest enterprise in the world. Most people think of the Secretary of Defense as a policy maker, but they are also the manager of the world’s largest enterprise.

Taking a step back, what does US foreign policy get for its return on that investment?

The opening chapters of the book are about spending money on high-tech systems. It is necessary for the leadership to do that in a way that there is not the waste and abuse that discredits the enterprise. As Secretary, I would be embarrassed to ask the taxpayer for that much money if I knew it was being wasted.

During the time I was Secretary, we never got a budget at the beginning of the fiscal year except for once. What was happening was a big concern over deficit. That is what drove the size of the defense budget. Dick Cheney, my predecessor and friend, presided over the largest decrease ever. Not because he wanted to, but because the Soviet Union ended, so the budget wasn’t supported. So there is a lot of history that comes with this. If you ask me if the budget needs to be that big, I would say we can make use of that money because we have five major competitors – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. We are all they think of, but we have to think of all five of them.

If the budget were cut by 10%, over 70 billion dollars, is the world a meaningfully different place?

I wouldn’t go that far, but I will stress the consequences of what seems like a modest reduction of the budget. If you did that in one year, how would you take that much money out? A lot of the funding is locked into how many troops you have and it is illegal to just kick them out. You can’t change their retirement and health care expenses. So then that 10% is reflected in “principal readiness”. So if you suddenly impose that cut, it turns out to be inefficiently deployed. If you ease into cuts, we can plan for that and minimize damage. You have contracts and people that you cannot just throw overboard.

Suppose it is gradually reduced, is international relations affected? Is there a guns vs. butter argument to be made?

I think what would happen is that we would prioritize our commitments more than we do now. Our current guidance is to be able to dominate any potential threat to the US. If you want less than that, you pay for less than that. It might also mean that we invest less in the long term to stay safe in the short term, which is what many governments do that do not invest enough in themselves. It catches up with you over time. It is not the end of the world, but it is less security for the US and maybe less wisdom in how we deploy budget cuts.

When you say guns vs. butter, it is important to me to clarify one thing. I have never argued my budget at the expense of another – and I was invited to repeatedly. Other kinds of government spending are important parts of our long term national strength. That is the larger mission that I was charged with, so I would not argue that my mission was more important than another.

What do you see as the value of UN Peacekeeping?

First off is the question of why we cooperate with the UN as a matter of security. They fill a niche in the ecosystem that is needed to keep the world safe. It does things that no individual country is incentivised to do. It reflects our higher values of collective good, and it reflects the values of enlightenment, which underlie the founding of this country.

As to peacekeeping itself, it is a type of military operation. So in the context of that clarity, I support UN Peacekeeping. It is most easily accomplished if it is keeping the peace, however, and not making one. I had the miserable experience of  watching Srebrenica in the 1990’s. I was in the Secretary of Defense’s morning staff meeting and CNN was showing UN Peacekeepers surrendering a helpless population to barbarians who were intent on slaughtering at least the males. They were UN Peacekeepers that were meant to be keeping a peace, but there was no peace in Bosnia. If you are going to make peace, you have to go in much heavier and ready for war. I would be wary of putting our people at high risk under a command that we do not control.

A lot of peacekeeping missions these days are a messy balance between the two. For instance, there are a few thousand peacekeepers in the CAR, and perhaps if they were not there, there would be a mass atrocity and the US would feel pressure to deploy troops.

You are describing a situation where you are trying to keep the lid on. Generally speaking, if things break out that are really big, national governments will intervene. When national governments do intervene, there is a natural division of labor. In South Saharan Africa, France has a historic role. It made sense to me in certain contingencies that we support the French and they take the lead, because they had the most local knowledge. However, there is a flip side. The western countries that have the most knowledge of a place tend to be those that colonized the country before.

What is the impact of the absence of a Senate confirmed Secretary of Defense on US foreign policy?

The Secretary of Defense is the counsellor and advisor to the President as he makes policy. Normally, having no Secretary of Defense would be a big loss. However, President Trump has not seemed to listen much to his Secretary of Defense. Things will go okay for a while as the department is very professional. However, without a leader, they cannot move into the future.

Is there a specific example you could cite?

What new technologies should be supplanting and eventually replacing surface combatant vessels? There are big questions which will take time to figure out. That is not possible without a Secretary of Defense.

Who is your ideal embodiment of the Secretary of Defense?

This is not a dodge, but I have known them all and I think we have been pretty lucky. They have all been solid and experienced. The people who have been most helpful to me are Jim Schlesinger, Bill Perry, and James Mattis. One of the reasons I wrote the book is so it can serve future leaders as they helped me. I want to inspire younger people, in part, to join in public life.

Update: Senate confirms Trump’s Defense Secretary.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice