Ash Carter calls himself Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s alter ego. “That means knowing what he knows; organizing his decision-making; making all the decisions that are not so consequential that I need to bring them to his attention; making the place run on a day-to-day basis,” the deputy Defense secretary told National Journal from his Pentagon office.
Carter is one of hundreds of officials included in Decision Makers, a special issue of National Journal, coming on Friday, that profiles key members of the Obama administration. Edited excerpts of his interview with NJ follow.
NJ What matters most to you in the big picture?
CARTER [The Defense Department] at this moment in history is making two major adjustments at the same time. The first is the adjustment to the end of the era of Iraq and Afghanistan, a period of more than 10 years when those two wars have, more than anything else, dominated our attention in everything we do. It has to be that way when you have people at war. We need to take this great institution and reorient it to the national security issues that are going to define the future for this country. That would be a big enough task all by itself. But it happens to coincide with the need to cut the defense budget. We know the country can’t afford to give us the amount of money we’ve been used to. It can only give us the amount of money we need to defend the country.
NJ How do you solve this?
CARTER Rather than looking at those as two problems to be solved at the same time, I try to use one to reinforce the other, to say to people, “We need to change, and the fact that we don’t have as much money anymore forces us to change, and the fact that the world is different forces us to change.”
NJ What do you say to defense hawks who are resistant?
CARTER There are constantly people, whether they be members of Congress from a particular district, or members of a particular industry group, or our own people—military, civilian, retirees—who would like to continue to have the same funding they’ve had over these years. And we just have to fight from the high ground: We’re here to defend the country; we’re not here to spend money for people’s individual welfare. We’re not here to spend money for a particular state or congressional district. We honor our service people and try to keep faith with them, but this isn’t a jobs program, it’s a national-defense program. And we just have to keep reminding people that there are other uses for which the country could put the taxpayer’s dollar.
NJ You were at the notorious “Last Supper” with Defense officials and military contractors in 1993. Does that time period remind you of what’s going on today?
CARTER There are some similarities between the current period and when the Cold War ended. At that time, like now, the Defense Department had to adjust to a lot less money and to a major strategic change. The only thing that was different then that we don’t have now is the world hasn’t gotten any safer in the last [few] years. At the end of the Cold War, clearly the world was safer. But the threat to the United States is not going down as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end. The world is still a dangerous place, all the way from the Middle East to North Korea.
NJ Even though it’s winding down, the war in Afghanistan continues.
CARTER I don’t think in many times in the leadership of the [Defense Department], there has been simultaneously war going on and the recognition we need to look and act beyond that war. I spent a lot of time over the last four years making sure our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had everything they needed to protect them, particularly from improvised explosive devices, making sure they had all of the reconnaissance equipment. On my windowsill is [a model] MRAP, which is kind of the signature weapon of this era in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, making our troops there more effective and, above all, safe—that’s been a passion and a commitment that can never stop for me as long as there are any soldiers still fighting in Afghanistan.