Ash Carter on Leadership in the Pentagon
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Hi, I'm Ben Mathis, welcome to kick ass news to most Americans, the dealings of the department of defense are a mystery and the Pentagon, nothing more than an opaque five sided box that they regard with a mixture of all insufficient. But in a new book titled inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership in the Pentagon. Former secretary of defense ash Carter demystified and sheds light on all that happens inside of one of the nation's most iconic and most closely guarded buildings and on today's podcast, the twenty fifth secretary of defense takes me behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of the Pentagon. It's vital mission, and what it takes to lead. He describes just how massive an organization, the DOD is how he managed to seven billion dollar budget, and how he recruited top tech talent to the Pentagon Ashkar reveals how his background is a physicist came in handy in the Pentagon, and how it led him. Mm to oppose president Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program in the eighties. He discusses how he came up with the successful strategy to defeat ISIS, but cautions, President Trump against pulling out of Iraq and Syria entirely. He talks about his efforts to reach out to non traditional military recruits, and his history-making decision to open all combat roles to women, plus Russia, China general Pershing's desk in much more with former secretary of defense ash Carter, coming up in just a moment. Broberg thirty five years ash. Carter served in numerous jobs in the department of defense. Most recently as the twenty fifth secretary of defense under President Obama. He currently serves as the director of the Belfer center for science and international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School. And as an innovation fellow at MIT. He's written a new memoir, titled inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership in the Pentagon in today, joins me on the podcast to talk about it. Avocado, welcome. Thanks spin. Good to be here with you. I described inside the five sided boxes a memoir, but beyond that, you, give readers a fascinating organizational tour of the department of defense and how it operates you saying here that no institution in the world is as big complex, or consequential as the DOD, can you give us some numbers that put that in perspec-. Tive. Sure. And you're absolutely right. This is not about me. This is a book about the Pentagon and how it works and it kind of takes you inside the five sided box and gives you a peek down in the engine room at the mechanics and about the size. I mean let me just give you a few metrics here. We have more employees in the department of defense direct and indirect than Amazon. Mcdonald's Federal Express target and G, E coli, and we had, we do more RND than apple Google and Microsoft combined. We're the largest real property managers in the world, managing territory, the size of the state of Pennsylvania. And so this is the largest enterprise on earth by a substantial measure. It is managerial speaking. 'cause I was the number one, but I was also the number two, that is the C, C O chief operating officer that fence department. I was the number three the top weapons buyer and are in D manager. And by in all three of those jobs had to run. What is the world's largest enterprise, and it's budget is half of the federal government. Why is its budget is larger than that of most countries? It's about the size of the country of Sweden as you said, you were weapons and tech Sar and COO before taking over as secretary of defense, do you think it's safe to say that you came into that post as secdef with bound as good a working knowledge of how the Pentagon works is just about anyone? Yeah. I think probably among secretaries of defense, and I want to say about my own experience, that we have been blessed with. A lot of good secretaries of defense. I knew every single one of them going back to Bob McNamara and they all I've known him for years. They all would call me up, obviously not Bob, who's dead and some others and, and give me support and advice when I was secretary says a great brotherhood among us. But for pure experience in the Pentagon. I don't think in fact, I'm sure that there was no one who is was in there and associated with the place that long, you know, I, I walked been in to the Pentagon, my first job in nineteen Eighty-one, and I walked out in January of twenty seventeen that's a pretty long time. Yeah. And in addition to being the number one, the number two and number three, I was all various layers down below as well. So I've been in every little corner of it. And a lot of people have been in one part of it or another, and got to be secretary. And we're fine secretaries of defense. But it just so happens that. I know every corner, I know where every. Part of the every nickel of the dollar spent in every relationship we have around the world it just so happens. It's been my life. So re pretty good position to take the average citizen or a CEO, or an interested young people thinking young person thinking about what he or she's going to do with her life and, and take them inside and mature. And that's what the books about. And I didn't realize until I read the book that you came to the military with the background as a theoretical physicist did that come in handy at the DOD it. Yeah, I did. I mean, they seem sort of odd. But the way I got into it was this. And that is actually a lesson in here for any people who may be listening thinking about a career in public service. I was a theoretical physicist. That's how I started out. I was my twenties and the spirit of the people who taught me physics was the spirit of Manhattan project. They were the Manhattan. Project generation they were proud of what they done, but they also knew that they had done something very serious. And that they had a responsibility for the rest of their lives to deal with some of the consequences of nuclear weapons, and they told me that they said, are your if you have knowledge, you have responsibility. And so one day, a couple of eminent figures, called me up and said ash, we need you to go to Washington for just one year this is nineteen eighty and thus began a career that didn't last one year, but lead acid until as I said, twenty seventeen but for somebody who's thinking about maybe somebody's listening to this even thinking about where life's gonna take them. You sometimes try something, and you're not gonna you don't I didn't intend to dedicate the rest of my life to have. But here's what I found bin that was so captivating about that one. Year. First of all, we're physics came in was, I was actually useful because my knowledge made a difference in the rooms I was in and without my knowledge decisions, wouldn't have been as good, and I could see that and second, I could see that the decisions we were making, which were about the big issues of the Cold War, and nuclear weapons were hugely consequential things. So those two things together that you, you can make a difference. And the issues are huge. And what else that's the perfect combination for young person. So I was captivated by, as I think, anybody would be, and that led to my whole my whole career he asked whether being physicist was useful later. It certainly was when I was in charge of all the RND and buying all the weapons my new how everything worked, and nobody in the defense industry in any. Laboratory could fool me that was useful. But even as secretary defense and their other backgrounds do this for you. But one thing that science teaches you is that you can learn anything. And so when I was in cannery new problem like what to do about ISIS or a new place. I wasn't familiar with a where suddenly a crisis arose, or we had to do a hostage rescue, or a counterterrorism operation. I had the habit of mind that if I applied myself I can learn enough about it. And, and I never gave up. So I think that science does teach you that not to be afraid that nothing is beyond your knowledge as long as you work hard enough and another place where your physics background came in handy. Pretty early on a was during that stint in the eighties. You objected to the strategic defense initiative better known as Reagan's Star Wars program from a physicist point of view. Why was Star Wars a bad idea? Well, it just wouldn't work. I wasn't saying with a good idea or bad idea. But I, I knew that XM relase free electron lasers chemicals, IRS x Ray lasers. I knew it all these things were and so I- analyzed the prospects that if they were put up on big satellites, and space. They could shine down and shoot ascending missiles from the Soviet Union attacking the United States if nuclear war should break out. And that would obviously be a good thing. If you could do it, but you couldn't do it, and in years later, forty years later when I was secretary defense, Ben, we still don't know how to do it. You know we we do have missile defenses, but they're not based on lasers. They're based on rockets that go up and mash into other rocket. And they are, they are affective, but not against a huge threat like the Soviet Union. Mos. During during the Cold War. So we still don't know how to do that. So all I said, was this eight this isn't going to work, and it was. And the reason it was significant was that it was, my, it was the first scientifically informed analysis based on full access to classified information of President Reagan's idea. And so it got a lot of notoriety, and as things happen in our world, even then. You. You are contending with something the president the United States did, and that means that the munchkins around him, try to come after you and take revenge. And that was scary for me. Because I was naive scientist I had no, I would not intending to get involved. In anything political, I was just from my point of view telling the truth. And so it was a lesson in, in the political big leagues. And that frightened me initially, and I thought, well K that's the end of my career, I blundered in something, but it ended up teaching me the opposite lesson Ben, and here's something that's probably useful to remember today, but there are a lot of people, including friends of President Reagan, and supporters of the Reagan administration who stood up for me, and they simply said, this guy is a scientist. He was doing his job. He was answering the question he was asked. To do. Everybody layoff them. And they said he did a responsible job. He did a knowledgeable job. And that's the kind of people we wanna have working on national defense. And in this case, he happened to arrive at a conclusion that was inconvenient for the president. But that's the kind of information and analysis, we need to have to have the best defense on earth. So the thing started off scary and actually discouraging me, but it went full circle, and it came around, and I said to myself through various people sticking up for me. I said, no, this is really very principle country. A lot of decent people contributing to defense. And when you hear these debates they're not debates to the death, there, debates among honorable people around the truth. And I only say that net and not in a partisan way and I only say that now because. In some ways that seems like a bygone era from from today's right? You and you've served under several presidents, finally ending with President Obama. Who do you think had the best grasp of how the department of defense works best and how best to utilize it? Well on day one as he walked into office, I would say, President Bush one. He had fought in World War Two. He had been in the government that is in the administration of President Reagan for the preceding period of time. So search surely on day one he was the most knowledgeable. But, you know, people learn really fast, I can't speak about President Trump because I didn't serve under him in the book, my book mentions and very few times, accordingly. Right. And I can't imagine he had much knowledge it certainly doesn't look like that. Don't see where he would have gotten it. But, but every president that I worked and get him star goes from Reagan right through bomb. They were hard workers and fast learners. So let's take Obama, I wasn't his secretary defense in his early days, but he came in he, he had never been in the federal government before. So did he know where all the villages in Syria were did? He know what it f thirty five was the difference between thirty five and an F eighteen. No, he didn't. But by the time he left he did. And the same I think is true of his predecessor President Bush to President Clinton. They all the, the presidency sobered them up quite a bit. And they worked very hard every day, and it was impressive what they learned over time. So you're here. You are. You're secretary defensively. I've been doing this, my whole life. I can. Expect the president to know this church and you go in, you start talking to them about it, and damned if he doesn't already know about it. I was always impressed with all of them, really with the, the degree of mastery, they got over time. But at those early years are very sensitive because you can't expect them to have all that, and mastery, and if there's a yen to the defense department's Yang, it would certainly be the State Department. There's also a certain amount of friction that's almost inherent between those two organizations. How do you view that relationship? I really refused to have friction really. And I yeah, I mean. Well, we had to do that. Carried I but that's not friction John Kerry night would would agree to disagree of president from time to time. And that's, that's, that's called giving unvarnished advice resin nearing different points of view frictions different than a. Here's how I learned my lesson. And I remember being an assistant secretary of defense when the secretary of defense was Bill Perry, who was secretary defense to Bill Clinton, and I had a number of system, secretaries of state, who were my counterparts the we because we had very few assistant sectors, independent, they had lots of assistance state. So your counterparts were many to one, but I'd go in and every once in a while to Bill, and I'd complain and I remember him looking at me and saying ash, I will never call up, Warren Christopher's secretaries of state at that time. I'll never call him up and complain. About something our staffs can't resolve. He said, I'll just never do that. So there's no point in you coming to me and doing that. I want you to work things out yourselves, and I took that to heart. And then I when I was secretary would say that to my, my staff. We can't have petty bureaucracy fighting. We can have debates, and I actually bent on the substance of it believe that in today's world even in matters of War, I benefited from the inputs of the diplomats, the intelligence people, the financial people, and treasury people because the world's complicated. And if you're running a war as I, I was in Afghanistan in Iraq and Syria and almost wars, and many other places of most of those have a big political and economic dimension to them. Now. I do remember working for casper, Weinberger in the eighties when it was a simpler world, there was only one war, which that we all thought about all the time, which was the big one between us and the Soviet Union. Right. And that was so apocalyptic that it was purely military and Caspar, Weinberger believed that we needed it, and he held secret within the defense department, all aspects of our war plans, that was the habit, then and we wouldn't share them with anyone, but the president of the United States, wouldn't share them with the State Department or anybody else. And that was reasonable at that time, because there was, there was almost no political and economic point after he launched new start a new war. But if you're fighting ISIS, and you're defeating ISIS, we all know and this is important right at this very moment that they're not beaten for good. If you don't work on the. And economic circumstances that rave them birth in the in the first place. These days a secretary defense needs to have good relationships with other people around town, so it's not a luxury and it's not just a kindness or courtesy in order to do your job. Right for the country. You've got a make a team effort. We're gonna take a quick break, and then we'll be back with more with former secretary of defense, ash Carter when we come back in just a minute. If you've been enjoying my conversation with former secretary of defense, ash Carter, then you should read his new book inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership in the Pentagon. The twenty fifth secretary of defense takes readers behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of the Pentagon, it's vital mission, and what it takes to lead drawn from Carter's thirty six years of leadership. Experience in the DOD. This is the essential book for understanding the challenge of defending America, in a dangerous world, and imparting trove of incisive lessons that can guide leaders in a complex organization, Facebook's. Sheryl Sandberg says this book should be required. Reading for every citizen, who wants to know more about how our country stays secure and Henry Kissinger, says this book should be essential reading for anyone concerned about the evolution that technology and political upheavals around the world. Impose on us order inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership in the Pentagon. On Amazon audible or wherever books are sold. And now back to the show. You've been credited with the successful plan to turn the tide against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. What was your thought process when you develop that ISIS strategy? The two principal military objectives from my point of view were Mozell in Iraq, the second largest city in Iraq. And we had to take that back and Raka in Syria, which is not a hugely consequential town in any other way, except that ISIS declared that to be the caliphates new capital. And so I had to take that too. So if you think about those two cities as kind of the, it's the Berlin and Tokyo of this war than how are you going to get there? And so our approach was instead, rather than doing all the infantry fighting ourselves. We'll say all right. Look will train you guys you be the infantry you go into the cities are role. Will be to advise an accompany you on the ground, but also to bring the huge tornado of the US military, down upon the battlefield, and you'll get intelligence and air power and logistics, and all the stuff that only we can do and will overwhelm the enemy ISIS, so that was our strategy. But by the end of twenty fifteen I enjoy done for the chairman of the joint. Jesus staff had built that plan. For most one Raka the president had approved it. We got all the I at countless meetings with allies and also with the body of Iraq and Bart Sahni of, of, of, of Kurdish Republic, which is part of Iraq and also Syrian forces in basically, by the time I left office in early twenty seventeen it was, it was all over the we had surrounded those cities. And we, it was inevitable that we were going to. Yeah, we were going to take them, and then we subsequently did now I did, I mentioned earlier. I'm I'm worried that we're. Taking our foot off the gas and it's a mistake to now turn around and, and leave the place to without our influence anymore. I'm not saying we have to be fight each surely, not dying there. But we need to keep our influence. They are simply as a matter of self protection, and we've won the war, let's not Unwin another war in Iraq. So is President Trump then justified in his assertion that ISIS as he put it is basically defeated. Yeah. I think so. I think the I think, as I said, both the fact and the idea are destroyed. The only thing you have to say is that nothing's gone forever. Other a few of these fanatics left, we pursued them down to the freight down the frady's valley. I thought we were going to kill them all, apparently we'd didn't. So there are still some there, which is one of the reasons why we need to stay and. These are fanatics. And so they will try again to get people on their side. And if you allow the conditions to be recreated where they can get a few people on their side, and then tyrannize the rest of the people, you'll have old ISIS. Mac again, that's why I would I think we should not leave Syria not leave Iraq. We should stay in the game again not fighting and dying. But assisting and enabling our friends, they're these people are now they, they fought the war. We asked them to fight. They won the war, they couldn't have done it without us. But they won the war. Now, we want him to win the peace and turn our backs on him at this point is, is self self defeating and global terror is one of the five biggest threats you list, and inside the five sided box also on that list Russia, China, Iran North. Korea, I want to try to get to each of these in the time, we have first off Russia. It almost seems like there are too many problems to keep track of Putin is testing us on so many different fronts, whether it's cyber warfare the election Syria aggression in the Arctic Ukraine, and potentially other former Soviet satellite states violating the nuclear-test-ban withdrawing from nuclear treaties with so many balls in the air, where do we focus, our resources with Russia? It. He you're exactly right. He's, he's all over the globe at all over the strategic map, but there is a common denominator to Putin and I say this because I've been in meetings with Ladimir Putin's in nineteen nineteen Ninety-three Putin feels that the Soviet Union's collapse, was a catastrophe for the Russian people, and he's entitled to that view of his sleep. He believes that the United States has made mistakes around the world and he enumerates them toppling, governments in the not knowing what to do. So he makes some reasonable points that I don't necessarily agree with. But you can understand, but here's where Latimer Putin becomes tough to work with he views fourteen the United States, as an aim of his foreign policy in itself. Now, if he wants to talk to me about Syria. Okay. We can talk about Syria. We have different views. Maybe we can build a bridge between his view and my view in some way of, of, of, of reaching common ground. Same thing if we're talking about terrorism. We're talking about North Korea, China, whatever. But if his objective is so to speak, excuse my expression to screw the United States. That's an objective. I can't you, you can't compromise with that Ben build a bridge to that. And that's what makes him so difficult. And that's why you have to push back. We didn't have a war plan for Russia. Because when the Soviet Union ended, we didn't need ours. Soviet in Warsaw Pact war plan anymore. And it looked like they were either on the ropes permanently or we're gonna kind of turn into a democracy, or at least. Some sort of friend. And that's what everybody hoped. But when I was secretary defense, I said, it's, it's time we have were plan for Russia. Get them said to say that a but we need one in NATO needs one that's when we began to put the, the additional forces into Europe and obviously, this is not something we sail a lot about in detail publicly, but we begin to build, again, a comprehensive or plan for Russia. And then in the cyber, you mentioned that there's a lot we need to do there. The Obama administration didn't do enough and the Trump administration hadn't done enough. The United States has not done enough in this guy hasn't learned any lesson at all. So I think that he will not. Stop pushing the just not he's nature until an in less. We push back and that doesn't mean starting World War three but it means applying counter pressure and checking his moves. That's why one of the reasons besides ISIS that I wouldn't simply walk out of northeast Syria, that has become our, our strategic chess piece with respect to Syria. We didn't have. Any leverage over Syria. Now we do. Why would you let go of your leverage given that both Iran and Russia who are in Taganrog? It's are trying to stab wish their own position in Syria. Why would you surrender the US position? So it easier out pushing back and in this book, you also warned that the US is beginning to lose its technological advantage over countries like China and Russia to address that problem you became the first Defense Secretary to reach out to Silicon Valley, and I think twenty years, what was your pitch to top tech talent. There two things that make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known been one is our people. But the other is our technology. And in the old days, we used to do all the technology ourselves. We just give we most of the things importance like the internet and communication satellites jet engines and all the stuff was. Was done by the Pentagon. Now there's a lot of technology outside of the Pentagon, and we need to reach out and get it and get it used as appropriate to defend our people and make a better world. That's our. That's our job and to do that, we have to have a reasonable relationship with the tech community and the passage of time had led to a certain amount of estrangement. Or in some cases, they just never worked with us before. And then there was things like Edward Snowden that created a suspicion about us, and I needed to try to patch that up and say to people look, let's agree to disagree about Edward Snowden, but we do have a common mission. Here we both believe we all believe in freedom. We believe in civilization. We believe in protecting our people if you are concerned about what your government is doing. Come on in and make us do the right thing. The government is not a thing apart. The government is just us. If you're concerned about how to use artifice intelligence, for example, then come in and tell us how to do it responsibly and ethically. And that work those arguments worked because tech people are. Have the same thought process I had way back when I started when, when I described I wanted to do stings of consequence every young person wants to, and they wanna be able to make a difference. And all I had was my knowledge of physics with. They have is knowledge of technology. And so, I say, come on, in, and just do it for one year say mortgage payment, they might see near as used on me. I say come in for just one year. You can keep your hair orange. You can the jewelry and your nose in your ears. I'm not gonna make you try to look like me guide a suit or with a flag, lapel pin or somebody uniform, you'd not you can you can you can be yourself. And I said, commend in work on one project or for one year I created a sort of rotation program to let them allow them to do this. And I said here, here's what I guarantee you. I guarantee you when you walk out if you walk out after a year that you this will be. The thing your proudest of having done your entire life. You're going to be dealing with issues of life and death and freedom, and slavery, and your government doing the right thing or the wrong thing. All that's really meaningful. There's nothing nobler than than a public service in my judgment. And of course, security is the thing without which no other good things in life can be had. If you're not safe, and as part of your effort to attract the best talent to the DOD you advocated for greater outreach to members of the LGBT community single parents, and other nontraditional recruits, and one of your major policy changes was your decision to open combat to women. You say in the book that you kept that plan a secret even from the president right up until the moment that you announced it, why I wanted this to be a professional sober military personnel decision. Okay. It's not a it's not a. Political decision, and he wouldn't do this, a president wouldn't do this, but White House staffs, you know, they could they could say they'd could try to take political credit for it. I didn't want to getting political credit for anything because that would only mess things up that would make something that was kind of a no brainer in to a political thing, and it wasn't social policy. I tell people who say talk about social Bazi. I see you don't really have that wrong. You've got it. Upside down, it would be social policy to exclude people, not on the basis of their military qualifications. But for some social reason that would be social policy and military policy is to have the best people who were the most qualified to do the most solemn job that you can have, which is defending the country. Well, I'm kind of ending by going backwards here. But I have to tell you that my favorite chapter title was from the first chapter it's. Called how not to waste seven hundred billion dollars a year. And this gets into your role as chief of procurement at the Pentagon. Why do you think the Pentagon is prone to these accusations of fiscal responsibility brings to mind the thousand dollar toilet seat? Or I think now there's a ten thousand dollar that seat and those kind of crazy expenditures because it does happen. Yeah. And it's unaccept- and number one, that's not a lot, but it happens and second, it's completely unacceptable. How can I go out and ask the tax payer for about seven hundred fifty billion dollars a year with a straight face which I you know, happy to do knowing that the money wasn't used? Well, I e can't have that you can't you can't do that. It's a constant battle to make sure that it is. Wisely used now ever, I do believe it can be done Ben in with the book, basically says is. Is here's how you can do it. Right. Even in war, even in the in the very fast pace of Warren. I gave some examples of their some fighter aircraft and some submarines and so forth, that were in, in very messy shape when I took office, and how I applied myself to try to improve them so that they were no longer buying schedule that they were no longer cost over running. And then give people some of the tricks of the trade that go with good program management, which include things like contracting. Now, you may not think that's very interesting. But if you think about it that seven hundred fifty billion dollars. I spoke of four hundred billion of that is spent on contracts. The rest is spent on, on pain, soldiers and so forth. Interesting. But most of it is spent contract it out, because remember, we don't make anything in the Pentagon, right? Right. And on private industry. So everything is contracted out. So how those contracts are structured is really important and people and I try to make that interesting to people I it is certainly it'll be easily apparent to them that it's, it's very important. But I say, here's you know, if you ever wonder the whole book is like that it'd be ever wanted. How you buy a fighter jet. Have you ever wondered how you buy an aircraft carrier? Have you ever wondered how you ship stuff to Afghanistan or build two hundred and fifty eight basis in Afghanistan in one summer, which is what I did in twenty ten. How does all this stuff get done? We talk about all the politics of it in the geopolitics of it, but down in the engine room where I was for a substantial part of my career. How how has all this stuff get done? I think curious people and leaders CEO's future leaders, future soldiers young people future. Technol-. Logist will all find that interesting. How does this place? Really work before we go. I just have to ask you ask, what was the coolest part of being secdef was at working at General, John blackjack, Pershing's desk, or flying around in the defense secretaries playing e four b it's, it's easy answer. It's the troops. You gotta stand in a desert with these kids and talk to them. Tell them why you're proud of them why they're doing something that is an absolutely essential and just look in their eyes. And then if you get a chance and you go to their home base, talk to mom talk today. Talk to young spouse, it really lifts you up. That's the best part of the job. I you know all the hardware and, you know, the theaters of war and situation room in the White House, and all that's kind of interesting, but the troops are really what keep you going. Yeah, but being able to sit at general Pershing's desk is still pretty cool that ain't bad. Yeah. That's a very big desk since a history at the very least place. Looks the same as it did. I have a picture of the book of Robert McNamara sitting there during the job administration. Well, the same desk, same table. Same chairs longtime. Well, again, the book is called inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership and the Pentagon Ashkar. Thanks for talking with me. Thanks for having me Ben enjoyed it. Thanks again, to ash Carter for coming on the podcast or his new book inside the five sided box lessons from a lifetime of leadership in the Pentagon on Amazon audible, or wherever books are sold. Be sure to subscribe to kick ass news on apple podcasts if you haven't already. And if you like what you're hearing, then rate and review us while you're there, five star reviews or the easiest way for new listeners to find us, don't forget to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at, at kick ass news, pod, and feel free to Email me with your thoughts questions and suggestions at comments at kick ass news dot com until next time. I'm Ben Mathis, and thanks for listening to kick ass news.