Should Ash Carter ultimately become the next U.S. secretary of defense — as now seems likely — he will be continuing an important, underappreciated tradition in that office. Trained as a physicist, he will be the latest in a distinguished line of scientist SecDefs who have served the country and the defense community well. They include Harold Brown, and one of Carter’s mentors, William Perry. I remember speaking to Brown several years ago about this, and he lamented that too frequently in recent years, the job has gone to political pros. Ostensibly, the goal was to deal with tough budget issues on Capitol Hill and selling defense missions to the public, but what was lost with some of the pols who held the post was an understanding of the central role technology, innovation, and intellectual rigor should play in the job.
Carter is a worthy successor to this line. He is brilliant, dedicated, energetic, and creative, which he has demonstrated in his prior stints in Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s Defense departments. He is also tough and will offer without hesitation his views in an administration that would benefit from his realism. He also brings a much-needed resilience to the job. That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that for Carter, getting this job proves the sixth time’s the charm. (Having joined the Obama administration at the outset as deputy secretary of defense and thus in the on-deck circle for the top job, he had to endure being passed over for it when the White House successively chose, made offers to, or at least seriously considered five other people: Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and, in this most recent job search, Michèle Flournoy, Jack Reed, and Jeh Johnson.)
But despite the fact that Carter is a worthy choice for the job (and it’s about time he was actually offered it), I can’t help but feel that there are several big reasons we should expect that all this will end in tears. The first reason, of course, is that none of the first three Obama secretaries of defense have left with big smiles on their faces.
This first reason that there’s likely to be an unhappy end or at least some very rough spots during a Carter tenure at DOD hints at the others because there must be some common roots for the unhappy experiences that have marked relations between the White House and the five-sided building that sits just across the Potomac. Four big ones come to mind. First is the NSC. Second is the NSC. Third is Yogi Berra. And fourth is everything else that is going on in the world.
The first NSC reference is to the broken National Security Council process in this administration and in particular to a White House national security staff that is more bloated than a week-dead cow lying alongside a hot West Texas highway.
There are now nearly 400 people on the National Security Council staff, which is a problem on several levels. It both reflects and communicates the centralization of decision-making on an ever-growing list of issues in the White House. Four hundred is a lot of people, but it is not enough to enable the NSC staff to do the jobs it is arrogating onto itself, jobs once done by the State Department, the Defense Department, and others. It also, as noted, sends a message to the world that all power lies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which, for example, leads foreign governments to not bother working with other government agencies and to direct all their inquiries to the big cheeses working in or next door to the big white house.
Furthermore, even at its current weight, which would certainly seem to qualify it for a starring role on next season’s The Biggest Loser, the NSC staff certainly can’t attempt to do key jobs once performed by other agencies and, at the same time, do the jobs of planning, coordination, and staffing the president that it is supposed to do. This not only leads to overload and system failures, but it sucks the oxygen out of other corners of the bureaucracy. For example, the National Intelligence Council, a place supposed to be doing high-level analysis and providing much-needed foresight to the U.S. government, ended up devoting much of its bandwidth to providing an estimated 500 background briefing papers for the absurdly frequent NSC principals and deputies meetings that took place in the past year.
Big-footing the Defense Department and the State Department doesn’t win the White House many friends in these agencies either. The top-down approach to running the government — complicated by the fact that embracing such an approach actually impedes the proper functioning of the government — leads to many of the tensions that bedeviled previous secretaries of defense (and state).
All this is made worse by the presence and reality of the second NSC to which I referred. This is neither the official National Security Council (per the National Security Act of 1947 consisting of the president, vice president, and key advisors), nor is it the staff described above. Rather it refers to the inner circle of top presidential advisors who actually make and influence most of the big national security decisions the president makes.
This is a very small group — one so tight-knit and impenetrable that many very senior Obama White House officials with whom I have spoken lamented their inability over many years to break into it. Call them the National Security consiglieri. It is a group consisting of former campaign aides now in top jobs who have the president’s trust, his ear — and who serve as his gatekeepers, enforcers, and principal brain trust. Among these are Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and, periodically, political counselors like Valerie Jarrett. All of them are smart, capable people who tirelessly work to serve the president and the country. But on the one hand, as former campaign advisors, they tend to view the world too much through an “us and them” lens that has excluded others in the administration and has even kept the United States at arm’s length with key allies. Similarly, campaign teams tend to be more tactical than strategic. And after years together, they tend to suffer from groupthink. Further, no commander in chief, at the helm of the world’s most powerful government and the planet’s biggest, most complex organization, can be suitably supported by such a small, insular group.
The consiglieri also tend to be so protective of the president that they regularly resort to snarky leaks and throwing other members of their own government under the bus to protect him. Come the first big showdowns that will inevitably occur during Carter’s tenure, this will have the same effect on him that it had on his predecessors and other colleagues in the government. And Carter, whose many virtues do not include an unblemished track record when it comes to intragovernmental spats (see for an example his unhappy departure from his job as deputy secretary), is likely to want to push back.
Tensions between the White House and the Pentagon are inevitable because of the third factor here, the one voice that is even more influential with this president than that of the consiglieri — that of former New York Yankees backstop and Yoo-hoo salesman Yogi Berra. I’m not suggesting that the aging Berra regularly travels from his home in New Jersey to the Oval Office. He doesn’t have to. His voice has already become the defining force in much of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies. Because Berra is the one who famously offered up the credo of all who want to avoid tough choices, to whenever possible have things both ways: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
I’m not sure this is on a plaque on the president’s desk much as “The Buck Stops Here!” was on Harry Truman’s. But it might as well be. And this is the ethos that led to many of the problems that plagued Hagel in the last few months and will cause the most problems for Carter. The key issue, and the one likely to occupy much of Carter’s time in the next two years, is the war in Iraq and Syria. The inner conflict within the president on this is totally understandable. He doesn’t want to lead America into another war in the region of precisely the type he was elected to end. Yet he does not want to be the guy who presided over the ascendancy of the Islamic State as the first terrorist organization to establish its own state, a potential breeding ground for years and years of great threats to the United States, its interests, and its allies. So the president has gone to war. But reluctantly. And he has sent the Pentagon a message that is perhaps the most unpalatable it can get: Fight a war — but not so much. Win — but don’t take risks, including implicitly many of those that are essential to actually defeating a foe like the Islamic State (“boots on the ground” is the most infamous of these).
Understandably, this kind of view makes the military brass uncomfortable. Especially when much of the counsel they have offered to the contrary has been discounted or ignored as it has been. And not only will they be pressuring Carter as they did Hagel, but my sense of Carter is that he won’t be comfortable with halfway measures and ambivalence as an operational organizing principle either. But this White House has proved time and time again that this is its preferred course. This has included announcing a buildup and a withdrawal from Afghanistan in a single speech, practicinginvasion interruptus in Libya with a quick thrust and an even quicker withdrawal (leaving chaos), declaring “red lines” and not enforcing them, seeking congressional OK for initiatives and denying it needed them on an alternating basis every few months as was the case with taking action in Syria and then Iraq, and so on. When you are in the business of winning and every initiative undertaken brings big risks, as is the case with the Pentagon, these kind of mixed messages are not just confusing — they’re dangerous and anathema to a culture in which strategy, clarity, and complete commitment are valued. (Having it both ways has been a domestic hallmark as well: breaking records for deportation in the first term and pushing for immigration reform in the second, arguing for financial-service reform but not too hard and failing to implement much of it, in budget negotiations, etc.)
It’s worth noting, by the way, that sometimes the impulse to have things both ways, to follow both paths at a fork in the road, can lead to some uncomfortable and moderately ridiculous postures. One that has come to mind this week is the absurdity of the United States denying that Iran has become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, denying that we are coordinating with them or that this non-coordination coordination is not impacting our other interactions with them, notably our negotiations regarding their nuclear program. We admit to providing all our air-battle plans to Iraqis, and those Iraqis in turn provide them to the Iranians to ensure that we don’t end up in the same corner of the Iraqi sky. This is by plan not by accident. It leads to attacks that can only be described as coordinated. Attacks against a common enemy that have a common purpose. Now if that isn’t an alliance by definition, I don’t know what is. On top of which, if working together in such a way does not impact our other dealings with Iran, then we have found a way to eliminate human nature, national self-interest, and basic negotiating dynamics from our nuclear talks with the Iranians. Complicating this further are our repeated assertions to our traditional allies in the region, the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors, that this won’t negatively impact those relations even though Iran is their historical enemy (which they don’t believe for a moment). Also unconvincing are our assertions that working with Iran and Baghdad to defeat the Islamic State won’t empower Shiites in the Iraqi government to the ultimate detriment of the Iraqi Sunnis whose alienation from their own government opened the door to the Islamic State in the first place. (The Sunnis don’t yet trust us, or Baghdad, for a second.)
It’s a complicated world. That means that sometimes leaders need to have contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. This should not be seen as an excuse to have muddled policies, however. Rather, such circumstances require a special effort to have long-term clarity and strategy so that potentially conflicting needs or impulses can be resolved properly — so when we come to a fork in the road we know which direction we must go.
So far, such clarity and the courage to make the kind of choices necessary to ensure the best long-term outcomes have been missing. Which is further proof that bigger is not better when it comes to NSCs. (You can learn everything you need to know from the fact that his White House’s national security apparatus is both too big and too small at the same time.) Which is why, while I applaud the choice of Ash Carter, I worry for his future. Hiring him doesn’t fix the long-term problems with the way this president handles national security issues. After all, as Carter contemplates entering this job, he must know that in the battles thus far between the Pentagon and Yogi Berra, Yogi is batting a thousand.