The crippling and pervasive defects in us national-security policy—costly exertions that, time and again, fail to yield the promised results—are patently obvious, consistently bemoaned, and yet effectively tolerated. To say that the apparatus principally responsible for implementing those policies is an underperforming behemoth qualifies as a considerable understatement. The kindest verdict one can offer regarding the Pentagon is that it marginally outperforms its first cousin, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The next president will enter office in January 2017 vowing to correct those defects. The likelihood that he or she will succeed in doing so is nil. The reasons why are legion, but prominent among them is the fact that those who ascend to the top of the national-security apparatus invariably arrive in the Pentagon as unwitting agents of the status quo. By the time they land one of the top jobs, they have long since forfeited any capacity for critical thought.
To illustrate the point, consider the case of Ashton Carter, now a year in office as secretary of defense. The 25th person to hold that position since its inception just 69 years ago, Carter is seasoned, able, and undoubtedly well-intentioned. Yet he is as much a creature of the Pentagon as he is its CEO. He embodies the culture of national security, having absorbed its assumptions, worldview, habits, and language.
According to his official biography, “Secretary Carter has spent more than three decades leveraging his knowledge of science and technology, global strategy and policy as well as his deep dedication to the men and women of the Department of Defense to make our nation and the world a safer place.” Along the way, he acquired a bushel of impressive credentials. After graduating from Yale, Carter won a Rhodes scholarship and eventually returned from Oxford with a PhD in theoretical physics. His current Pentagon tour of duty is his fourth, and follows earlier stints as deputy secretary; undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics; and assistant secretary for international-security policy. As they say in Washington, Carter “knows the building.” When not in government service, “Ash” contemplates ways of making the world a safer place at prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford, while sitting on boards and commissions that provide venues for out-of-office members of the national-security elite to audition while talking shop. Depending on your point of view, Carter arrived in his present post either exceedingly well-prepared or thoroughly vetted.
Upon assuming office in February 2015, Carter wasted no time in identifying his three priorities: first, helping the commander in chief to make sound decisions and then implementing those decisions “with our department’s long-admired excellence”; second, caring for all the members—military and civilian alike—of “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known”; and third, building “the force of the future.” This last priority means “embracing the future” while simultaneously finding ways to economize through “a leaner organization, less overhead, and reforming our business and acquisition practices.”