Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter—a technocrat physicist, an arms control veteran, and a professor at Stanford—to help close this divide. During his tenure, Carter set up a virtual outpost in Silicon Valley. He worked to make it easier for tech companies to sell things to the Pentagon, for their engineers to work there, and for their bosses to offer up advice. He even let WIRED tag along and write a profile of him. He also impressed the local royalty. “He’s been amazing,” Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, told me in an interview.
Early in Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearings for Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, Sen. Jack Reed asked something that, for most Trump nominees, would be a tough question: What do you think about working with Russia to solve problems?
Mattis’s answer was blunt, and very un-Trumplike.
“I’m all for engagement, but we have to recognize reality,” the general said. “There are a decreasing number of areas where we can cooperate, and an increasing number of areas in which we will have to confront Russia.”
The answer more-or-less directly contradicted the president-elect, who believes that he can make “a deal” with Vladimir Putin. It was also a dynamic that happened again and again. To take just two examples: Mattis voiced support for keeping the Iran nuclear deal in place and refused to endorse moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If you just listened to Mattis talk, and had no idea who the president-elect was, you probably would have assumed that his boss was a relatively hawkish Democrat.
You would have thought, in short, that Hillary Clinton won the election.
But she didn’t. And Mattis — who’s so sure to be confirmed that Sen. Lindsey Graham jokingly referred to him “Mr. Secretary” — will soon have to work for a president whose instincts may diverge with his at nearly every turn.
Mattis’s confirmation will be a breeze. The hard work will start after he takes office.
A Conversation With Ashton Carter
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.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, speaking to NPR’s Morning Edition, says he’s concerned about retaining qualified U.S. military service members amid the “stress and strain” of more than 13 years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In one of his last interviews in the job he’s held since February 2013, Hagel refers to the “hidden consequences” of “nonstop war” faced by American combat forces since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He calls the situation “unprecedented in the history of this country.”
He tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that such a protracted combat role means that the same people keep rotating back to the front lines: “four, five, six combat tours — [the] same people.”
Hagel says that when spoke with a group of six promising young U.S. military officers in a recent meeting, “five out of the six said they were uncertain over whether they were going to stay in the service and most likely would get out.
“And why? Because of family issues, because of stress and strain,” he tells Inskeep.
In the wide-ranging interview with NPR, Hagel also speaks about the chaotic situation in Yemen, the challenges of identifying and training a moderate Syrian opposition, as well as the difficulty faced by President Obama in closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the administration’s sometimes-controversial, hands-on involvement in national security matters.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska who is the first enlisted combat veteran to lead the Defense Department, says “it’s going to be very difficult” to close Guantanamo by the end of the president’s term, “especially if the Congress further restricts where these last 122 detainees will go, how they will be dealt with.”
On the subject of Yemen, Hagel says the White House is “working our way through what the facts are” after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet resigned amid a near-coup by sectarian Houthi rebels.
“I think until we get a better understanding of how the Yemenis want to go forward in governing, then that will determine the future relationships,” he says.
“But we want to continue to have that relationship, which has been important, with the government,” he says of the country that has simultaneously given rise to some of the world’s most hardened jihadis and worked closely with the U.S. to eliminate the threat.
Concerning Syria, Hagel says there’s no question about the need to train moderate forces to “take back their communities and their towns and their cities” from insurgents of the self-declared Islamic State.
However, he says, “[this] issue in Syria is not going to be solved militarily.
“This is going to require … a political change, a shift” in Syria he says. “There is a military dynamic to it, but the military dynamic cannot lead and will not lead.”
Hagel’s deputy, longtime Pentagon official Ashton Carter, has been nominated by Obama to take over the key Cabinet post. He has yet to be approved by the Senate.