Remembering Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter, the 25th secretary of defense, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday evening, October 24. His passing is, of course, a stunning loss for his family and friends, but it is also an enormous loss for the nation.
Ash was arguably the smartest person I have ever met, although that wasn’t immediately apparent on our first encounter. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance at Yale, where I was a Ph.D. student. Wearing his helmet and carrying his lacrosse stick, he seemed like any other Yale jock type. He quickly disabused me of the stereotype. Assigned to my section of the American diplomatic history course taught by Professor Gaddis Smith, he demonstrated the powerful intellect I would observe at work over the ensuing half-century. Although he was a history major, his interest in American history was, at the time, tangential to his real focus, which was medieval history. He wrote a senior thesis on an obscure element of British medieval canon law (picking up enough Greek and Latin on his own to complete it) while double majoring in particle physics. His physics senior thesis on quarks was published before he had even graduated. Even though I was a third year graduate student and he was a junior when we met, he nonetheless managed, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, to finish his Ph.D. in physics a few years before I finally completed mine in history.
We stayed in touch over the years, often joking about my having been his “teacher” as an undergraduate, because we both made our careers in national security affairs and our paths would cross repeatedly. Ash began his career writing detailed studies and critiques of possible basing modes for the proposed MX intercontinental ballistic missile (a very controversial topic in the Carter-Reagan years), ballistic missile defense (also controversial in the era of Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal) and ground-breaking unclassified studies of nuclear command and control, including an important article in Scientific American (which remains in the syllabus for my course at Johns Hopkins SAIS on nuclear strategy), and an edited volume on the subject, Managing Nuclear Operations. He worked in the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and briefly in the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense before teaching at Harvard. He had done all of this by the age of 35. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer’s bon mot about Mozart: It is people like that who make you realize how little you have accomplished in life.
By that point, the most important part of Ash’s public career remained ahead of him. In the first term of the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense with responsibilities for nuclear weapons policy, arms control, and counter-proliferation policy. He returned to the academy in 1996 to co-chair the Preventive Defense Program with former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group with former CIA Director John Deutsch. For many years, Ash was a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Science Board and Defense Policy Board (where he continued serve until his untimely passing).
Ash returned to the Pentagon in the Obama administration, serving as under secretary for acquisition, deputy secretary of defense, and ultimately secretary of defense in the final two years of Obama’s second term. In that capacity, he forged the strategy that would ultimately lead to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and re-introduced the idea of “great power competition” as an organizing principle for defense strategy—notwithstanding well reported White House unease with his framing of the nation’s national security challenges. He also worked tirelessly to harness the world of emerging technologies to the Defense Department’s work.
Ash was the modern incarnation of the “defense intellectual”—someone who combined a deep understanding of the technical side of national defense with an historian’s sensibility about the nature of the national security challenges that the United States faces. He was often, if not always, the smartest person in the room and was noted for not tolerating fools gladly. He was unafraid of going against the grain of his peers, his party, or accepted conventional wisdom— endorsing, for example, the proposed low-yield W-76 warhead on submarine launched ballistic missiles and the nuclear submarine launched cruise missile proposed by the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. He valued America’s allies but did not fetishize our alliances. When he was Secretary of Defense, he worried about wayward allies like Turkey and how to deal with them. His tough-minded approach to national defense has, sadly, been vindicated by the challenges the U.S now faces from Russia and China.
The loss of Ash’s distinguished voice on national security affairs could not come at a worse time. I will personally miss his friendship and counsel, but the nation will even more dearly miss one its most serious students of national defense.