Former SecDef Weighs in on Syria, Turkey and Mattis' Departure


Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he didn't set out to write "your usual memoir" of Washington insider intrigue, but his 440-page plus opus on Pentagon dynamics still has resonance for the policy dilemmas that have plagued his successors.

In his book, "Inside The Five-Sided Box: Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon," and in an interview about it with, Carter lived up to his wonkish reputation and pulled no punches on the issues that occasionally put him at odds with allies and the White House.

He highlighted his own frustrations in dealing with one ally, Turkey, over U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS -- frustrations matched by those of current Defense Secretary Mark Esper in the past week.

On the current Turkish invasion of Syria, Carter said it appeared that the Trump administration was dropping the successful strategy of "enabling" local partners to take the lead in combating terror organizations, and abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces who put ISIS on the run with U.S. support.

The partnership with the SDF "achieved the necessary victory" in eliminating ISIS' territorial strongholds, Carter said. "[The Trump administration is] now surrendering it," he added.

In his book, Carter detailed past struggles around the same national security issues dominating the headlines today.

"Iran and Russia failed to knock us off course" in Syria, Carter wrote, but "other countries occasionally blurred the lines between ally and adversary. In fact, it was a NATO ally that caused the most complications for the campaign."

"I found many in the U.S. government far too cowed by Turkish threats to withhold support from the counter-ISIS campaign or to align more closely with Russia," Carter said. "I considered such threats hollow. The more we waffled, the worse the problem became. At some point, we needed to call Ankara's bluff."

In the interview, and in the book, Carter also described occasional flare-ups with the White House national security staff, and the delicate balance involved in remaining true to the dictates of conscience while meshing views on the use of military force with those of the commander-in-chief.

Carter said he was particularly incensed by the habit of an unnamed White House staffer to engage in what he called "table dropping," meaning sliding a memo on policy points in front of him, even while he was involved in discussions with President Barack Obama.

"This tactic of springing a document on people without warning or vetting -- known as 'table dropping' -- had always been offensive to me," Carter wrote.

"It violates all the rules of good process and fair treatment," he said. At one point, "I picked up the paper, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at the White House staffer who had given it to me, saying, 'Don't table-drop s---.'"

Carter on Mattis

Carter described his immediate successor, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as a friend of many years. His resignation in December 2018, he indicated, was inevitable after President Donald Trump sprang the announcement that he wanted all U.S. troops out of Syria.

"Jim was certainly put in that position" of having to resign rather than support a policy to which he was vehemently opposed, Carter said.

He said Mattis was "finding the differences between him and the president were too frequent and too large," and the Syria issue was the culmination. He added that it was always a difficult decision for any holder of high office, even when retired, to speak out on differences with a serving president.

In his own tenure as defense secretary, Carter said he was guided by his "very strong moral views about right and wrong. You're not doing the president any good and you're not doing the institution any good [if those views are withheld]," he said.

"All of that assumes that you get paid attention to at all," Carter said. "It does not look to me like the recent secretaries of defense in this administration get paid attention to."

Carter was adamant in opposing the view that those being considered by the president for high office should take the job out of a sense of duty and forego any misgivings about what the service might entail.

"You decide that before you take the job," Carter said. "It is a myth that if the president calls you, you take the job no matter what. That's a point a view that is neither good for the president, nor good for the individual."

"The first reason to take the job with the president of the United States is to help him," Carter added, "and you can't help him if you know you're immediately going to be at loggerheads.

"Secondly, you have a duty to your own sense of right and wrong and honor and trust. You need to be true to that, not because it's about you, but because it's about your concept of what is right for the profession of arms," he said.

In his own case, Carter said he felt out Obama on Afghanistan, the status of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and the still-developing plan to shift U.S. forces away from the wars of the Mideast to the Asia-Pacific before accepting the nomination.

"I see no difficulty in serving loyally despite policy differences," Carter wrote, "as long as those differences are not too many and too great."

Buying Beans and Bullets

In a blurb for the book, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Carter's perspective on the interplay of national security policy and Pentagon budgeting "a must-read for any citizen who cares about our military and how it works."

The book is also "a way for troops and veterans everywhere to understand and visit the parts of the Pentagon they never get to," Carter said.

It's likely typical of Carter, who had 37 years of experience in various capacities and associations with the Pentagon, to begin the book with a discourse on acquisitions, the often mind-boggling process of how the Defense Department goes about choosing and spending for high-end weapons.

"It may not seem like the sexiest place to start," he said, but "I wanted people to have a window into a hidden world."

When Carter was chief acquisitions officer, "I expected excellent tradecraft," he said.

And he wasn't getting it on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the costliest program in Pentagon history, Carter said.

The program was in "deep trouble," plagued by cost overruns with prime contractor Lockheed Martin, Carter wrote. "It was costing twice as much to design and develop as planned," he said.

"I called the program manager, a Marine Corps major general, to my office. He gave me a pretty upbeat summary of the program, which puzzled me," Carter said.

Carter said he was "startled" when the general told him he was continuing to give fee awards to Lockheed Martin Corp. despite the poor performance and cost overruns.

When he asked why, the general replied that he liked working with the Lockheed Martin executive, and the executive said he'd be fired if he didn't get the award fees.

The general then asked what Carter thought the award fees should be. Carter said he replied, "How about none?"

"With that I walked out of the room. 'None' was a reasonable prediction in the political climate surrounding this out-of-control program," Carter wrote.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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