The Scholar as Secretary: A Conversation with Ashton Carter

By Tepperman, Jonathan | Foreign Affairs, September/October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Scholar as Secretary: A Conversation with Ashton Carter


Tepperman, Jonathan, Foreign Affairs


Ashton Carter has an unusual background for a secretary of defense. Before assuming the United States' top military post in February, he studied medieval history and particle physics as an undergraduate at Yale, got a Ph.D. in physics as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and taught international affairs at Harvard. He also served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and as an undersecretary and then the deputy secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. Since becoming secretary, Carter has displayed an unusual bluntness, openly criticizing Iraq's military forces and talking tough to adversaries such as China and Russia. In his first full-length print interview since becoming secretary, Carter met with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in his Pentagon office in early July.

You've held a lot of jobs in the course of your career. Which best prepared you for your current position?

I would say that what has prepared me best is seeing, over several decades, some of the very best of my predecessors in action. My other previous jobs have been more managerial and in the technology area, which means that I know how things work here.

And all this helps me do the things I'm most intent on doing as secretary of defense. Those are, first of all, taking care of our troops. I learned from all [my predecessors] that I have a tremendous fiduciary duty toward the troops. They're what I wake up to in the morning.

The other thing is to help the president make the difficult decisions about our foreign policy and carry out that part of it which involves the weight of the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.

And the last thing I keep uppermost in my mind is the future of this institution and making sure that we continue to have the very best people in our all-volunteer force, that we have the very best technology, and that we continue to have the magnetic power to attract everyone around the world. As I travel around the world, I see that they all want more-more association with us, more contribution from us. And that's a great tribute to the United States and its values, but also to the performance of this department.

Speaking of that performance, how worried are you about the budget cuts that have been forced on this department by sequestration?

The game of budget chicken that has been going on now in Washington for several years saddens me very greatly, and I have really pleaded with the leadership [in Congress]-and this has to be a bipartisan thing-to come together behind a multiyear budget process. The herky-jerky, on-and-off annual decision-making stops us from spending money efficiently in the way that the taxpayer expects. It means that our troops and their families don't have a perspective on the future and feel at risk. It gives a misleadingly diminished picture of America around the world, suggesting that we can't get our act together. It's at odds with the ability of our partners in the defense industry to have an efficient business strategy and therefore to continue to support us.

As well as being the secretary of defense, I'm also on the National Security Council, and so I can't be indifferent to the budget woes of the State Department, of the intelligence community, of scientific R & D, and of education. The whole thing hobbles me and the rest of the federal government. I really hope that we can rise above it.

Despite the budget woes, the United States remains vastly predominant in terms of military power. And yet Washington often has a hard time getting its way around the world. What good is having the world's largest and most powerful military if you're unable to use it-against Russia's little green men in Ukraine, Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq, or China's island building in Asia?

Our military power is there to support our core national interests. And of course, our military power is enormously, awesomely effective when it's used. …

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