Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter Talks Iran, China, and Trump’s Late-Night Tweets
“I don’t want to have a war with Iran, but I know who would win.”
Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sat down with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, yesterday to talk about his upcoming book, Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon. The two also discussed Iran, China, and the tenure of President Donald Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a close friend of Carter’s.
The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Let me just jump right to the news of the afternoon. Oil tankers have been attacked in the Gulf. Secretary of State Pompeo has just named Iran as the culprit. Are we heading to war?
Ash Carter: I think if the Iranians did this—and according to Pompeo, it wasn’t just proxies. And so he attributes it to the Iranian government, which I would do in any event, even if it was proxies. I think it’s important to sustain the principle that the act of proxies is the act of—
Goldberg: But how proxy can you be if you’re operating in a maritime setting?
Carter: Yes, you can make that argument in Gulf shipping. However, if they were to attack U.S. forces in Syria, you might say they’re proxies too. Again, I think the principle that an attack by a proxy has to be treated as an attack by the sponsoring government is an important one. So either way, in this case, once we collect all the information, [some] response is going to be necessary. Now, Secretary Pompeo only talked about political and economic responses, and not military responses. I think I would nevertheless be at least preparing options for a military response.
Goldberg: What would your—sorry to use a fraught expression from your White House—but what would your red line be for the U.S. to take action, military action, in the Gulf?
Carter: Well, the lesson I have learned from observing red lines over a number of decades and a number of presidents, including President Obama, is don’t draw them in the first place.
Goldberg: The first rule of red lines is don’t draw them.
Carter: Yeah, so I’m not going to do that. Unless you clearly see what the purpose is, don’t do it. I do think, were they to take any action like that against a U.S. military vessel, that’s top of the tier. Then you get U.S. flag vessels, of which there are almost none there—in this case, this is international shipping, but again, I think some action will probably be taken, like Pomepo said. But, you know, we’re in the very early hours now. As I say in the book, how do you manage circumstances like this? I was in office when we learned that 10 U.S. sailors had been taken prisoner or hostage by the Iranian military. In these fast-moving situations, you’ve got to keep your wits about you, and the first thing you have to ask yourself is, What do I feel safe saying? That’s why it took a number of hours, I guess, for Mike Pompeo—and he’s probably pretty careful about what he said about political and economic response.
And don’t get out in front of your headlights because people are screaming for you to say something. And the other thing is, you’ve got to give people some actions to take. And so it’s important that acting Secretary Shanahan and Pompeo are doing some things now. First of all, it shows that you’re alive and awake, and that’s important. Second, it gives your—
Goldberg: That’s a low standard for a government entity.
Carter: But I think otherwise there becomes a narrative of inaction, which is a narrative of not knowing what your mind is. Which is not the same thing as not completely knowing all the facts of a given situation. So it is important to say something, and it is important to do something early in the hours of a crisis, even if you don’t fully know everything, because you kind of have to fill the void.
Goldberg: You worked for one of the most disciplined presidents in history. And we have now, I think it’s fair to say, one of the lesser most disciplined presidents in history. Can a tweet, at this point, cause a move toward something kinetic?
Carter: I don’t think a tweet would be construed as an order, if that’s your question.
Goldberg: That’s half of a question. Can the other side misinterpret it?
Carter: Let’s just be clear. The other side, yes, these tweets are more consequential. Now, if you had to predict what kind of tweet might come out of this particular circumstance with respect to Iran, given the president’s history of tweeting on Iran, it’s likely to be softer than anything Secretary Pompeo had to say, and he already was only talking about political and military response. Now, that’s from the outside looking in.
Goldberg: Talk about this crisis, the larger crisis that predates this afternoon. It seems to a lot of people like we’re in at least a semi-manufactured crisis, which is to say the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was working within the borders of what the JCPOA said it would do. And then there was the pullout.
Carter: This was not within those borders, though.
Goldberg: The situation was a status quo relationship. Which party, the Trump administration or Iran, is more responsible for ramping up this crisis?
Carter: Well, just to put the nuclear thing in perspective for everyone, the JCPOA was a good agreement, and I testified to that effect as secretary of defense, because it took off the table one of my possible future headaches. But it did not take all of the headaches off. It was not, could never have been, a grand bargain. And in particular, it didn’t deal with this kind of situation: threats to freedom of navigation in the Gulf, use of proxies in other conflicts, or missile tests, or anything else. It wasn’t my expectation that it would, but it didn’t, and therefore we had to continue to deal with all of these other kinds of issues. I think in that context, there may have been a belief among some, I didn’t particularly share it myself, that that would make resolving issues like the current ones we have a little easier, and that maybe the scope of agreement would have expanded from nuclear to other things. But that was really aspirational, and I think rather unrealistic at that time.
Goldberg: Who is responsible for what seems to be an unnecessary crisis over Iran and its malign activities right now?
Carter: Well, I’m not there with you in the sense that you’re attributing our confrontation with them over other things than nuclear—all their other malign activities—and our application of sanctions because of those other activities as us manufacturing a crisis. I rather think of it as them manufacturing provocations, which sanctions are a response to, and that inevitably leading to a certain amount of brinkmanship on both sides.
Goldberg: I won’t beat this horse forever, but if the Trump administration had not pulled out, or rejected the JCPOA, do you think we would be here today?
Carter: Might have been, might have been. Because they would still be doing this kind of stuff. They still had the mines, they still were working. Remember, even with the JCPOA possibly still in place—I don’t remember the timing—they were equipping basically Houthi splinters with the same kind of stuff, with the idea that they might attack U.S. naval vessels west of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s fine for us to take responsibility for negotiating and then walking away from the JCPOA. As I said, I would not have given that advice. At the same time, that’s not the original sin that leads to all evil.
Goldberg: Was it a mistake, in retrospect, on the part of the Obama administration to limit its negotiations with Iran to the nuclear file? And not to terrorist activities, ballistic missile activities, other malign activities?
Carter: I think what history would reveal is that that was the thing that was the most important. In other words, if you added that to this pile of stuff we already had in the way of serious security beefs with the state of Iran, that that might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And for me as secretary of defense, everything else I can find a way to handle. I don’t want to have a war with Iran, but I know who would win.
And nuclear wars are not something that anybody wins in a traditional military sense. I prefer not to have that choice in the hands of Iran. So, in that sense, a very sober calculation could have led you to make that the priority. They may have also thought that that was the one thing they’re more likely to get out of the Iranians.
Goldberg: I want to come to another subject for one minute. The subject of your successor, Jim Mattis, who you know very well, I think. Could you give us your candid assessment of his tenure in the job? And give us your candid assessment of why he left?
Carter: I’m going to set your expectations: He’s an old friend of mine. Jim and I have known each other for 25 years. We used to sleep on the floor of the secretary of defense’s airplane in 1993 as he flew around the world. Jim was a major; I was an assistant secretary of defense.
The first thing I’d like to say is, I think that he’s an excellent person. And I did not object that because he was a retired general he should not be secretary of defense. What is important about the secretary of defense is that he be the president’s chosen—that’s what civilian control really means. That’s an important principle, and if the president wanted Jim Mattis, that seemed, to me, to be okay. Obviously it didn’t end well for Jim. Jim resigned and then was fired.
Goldberg: Which is better than the flip side.
Carter: I guess so, but at any rate, you’ve got to go one way or another, and you go both.
Goldberg: Is Donald Trump qualified to be commander in chief?
Carter: He certainly doesn’t take advice from his secretary of defense. Now, did Obama always take my advice? Not always, but most of the time, and I always got a respectful hearing. You don’t take a job because you get offered. You certainly don’t take it because of your vanity. And you don’t take it just because the president of the United States called and offered you a job. I read that all the time, and one of the things I say in the book is that’s a fallacy. You take it if you believe that you can help. And you take it if you believe you can help consistent with your own values and your sense of right and wrong.
Goldberg: Apart from his inability or unwillingness to ask for or listen to advice, are there any other issues that cause you, as a now-private citizen but former secretary of defense, to worry about the national-security management of this country under this president?
Carter: I don’t know if it comes to the standard you just described, but I don’t like the conduct. I don’t like the personal conduct. I don’t approve of it. I’ll never get used to it. It’s not the kind of thing you want your children exposed to. And it’s not the kind of thing we permit in the profession of arms and the military. And it’s not just the president: It’s become pervasive in Washington.
Goldberg: Did the incident a week or so ago with the USS McCain surprise you? The way it played out?
Carter: It did, in the sense that somebody apparently did—if what is said actually occurred—that someone in the White House gave an instruction to somebody at lower levels in the Navy. That’s not unheard of, when somebody at low levels in the White House gives an instruction to somebody at low levels in the DOD. But it has got to be resolutely opposed by every secretary of defense. Chain of command really matters. The only person who gives orders to anybody in the Department of Defense is the president of the United States, and the only person he gives orders to is the secretary of defense of the United States. That is the chain of command. I’m a stickler for that—I was always a stickler for that. This was a violation of that.
Secondly, if it occurred according to the way we were told, it’s a violation of the nonpolitical nature of the U.S. military. And that’s a very important principle, again one that I was a stickler for. And you may remember this, that during the 2016 election and all the kaleidoscope of all the people running, I had to constantly look into a camera, or to a member of Congress, and say, “I’m not going to answer that question, because you just asked a political question and I’m in charge of the Department of Defense. And furthermore, I’m not going to allow Joe Dunford”—who was usually the uniformed officer next to me—“to answer that question either.” We don’t do politics.
Goldberg: I want you to talk about the shift from a multipolar threat from state actors to the wars we’ve been in for the last decade or a half or so with nonstate actors as the preoccupation of the defense establishment.
Carter: From 2000 on, it became clear, to me at least, as somebody who had watched Russia and China for a long time, that they were not going to turn out the way we might have hoped in the 1990s. Putin’s Russia was not going to be whatever Boris Yeltsin’s Russia might have been hoped to be headed for in 1993, and as Jiang Zemin passed to Hu Jintao passed to Xi Jinping, it became clearer and clearer that the Chinese were not going to be responsible stakeholders. And so those two factors, preoccupation by us on the one hand, and a lot of people—not me, but a lot of people—coming late to the realization of what Russia and China really meant. Meaning that we’re a little bit behind.
Goldberg: But where are we on this shift?
Carter: We’re in a world in which we are going to be paying more and more attention in the military sense to countering China and Russia, and to developing the high-end capabilities that are necessary to do that, and doing a little bit of catching up for time lost, for reasons I’ve tried to explain. And that’s in high-tech areas, it’s in obvious areas of warfare like space and cyber, less obvious perhaps to many people like undersea warfare, hybrid warfare, that area in between what’s clearly war and what’s clearly peace, that the Russians are trying to stake out as their exclusive preserve. You have to squeeze that gray stripe down to a really fine line, and be able to operate within it as adeptly as your opponents are able to.
Goldberg: All of what you said presupposes that the American people believe that the United States should continue to play this global role. There are a lot of Americans, it seems, who are moving into a more quasi-isolationist, or at least very transactional, understanding of global affairs. How do you convince Americans that countering Russia and China, with all the costs and dangers associated with that, is something worth doing?
Carter: Well, let’s start with the China piece. Where I think we’re doing a pretty good job collectively, including the current administration, at convincing people that letting China continue to go unchecked is selling our own people and our own companies, as well as our friends and allies, down the economic river. And what you see us now doing, in the case of China, is trying to put together the playbook for a competition with a communist dictatorship that we trade with. We have a playbook, it was called the Cold War, for a communist dictatorship we don’t trade with. But that’s not going to do us any good, because we trade with China.
So you see us trying out a little sanctions, and first it was aluminum and steel, and now they’ve gotten a little bit more sophisticated, and doing some Huawei stuff, and talking about whether students whose education is paid for or subsidized in part by the U.S. government should be allowed to return back to China.
Russia, I think people got serious about turning sour on Putin’s Russia earlier, even before the 2016 election hijinks, which if you weren’t disillusioned with Putin by then, you should have been disillusioned after that. My disillusionment occurred earlier because I’ve known him since 1993.
Goldberg: Are you a stayer in the U.S.-Saudi relationship?
Carter: Yes. I’m a stayer, but I’m a resetter. Let me tell you what some of my frustrations are. They have not come through for us militarily on several opportunities when they might have, the counter-ISIS campaign being one of them; didn’t even come through when I said “Ok, let’s not do the military, let’s do the time-honored Saudi way, just get out your wallet.” And even that, they wouldn’t come through and didn’t come through in a big way.
And I was frustrated with that, because they should share that objective and, at least as a partner, they should respect that it was an overwhelming objective for the United States and Europe—overwhelming for me because I have to protect my people against these barbarians and so they have to be defeated. That’s my view and if you’re with us in the Gulf, and you’re with us in general in the Middle East, I’d like to see a little respect for what is a strategic imperative on my part which is to protect my people. That offended me.
When [then Saudi foreign minister] Adel al-Jubeir suggests that they’re doing us a favor by buying our arms, it’s not a gift, it’s a transaction. It’s not a favor, it’s a transaction. And if they think that they’re doing us a favor, they ought to ask for a lower price. I want them as a friend and ally, ok, but it’s not a great gift, it’s gotta be a fair deal. And I think I’d reset the relationship a little bit.