A conversation with Ash Carter, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; United States Secretary of Defense (2015-2017) and David Gergen (Moderator), Public Service Professor of Public Leadership & Faculty Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, good evening, and welcome back to the most prestigious forum at Harvard. The law school would claim that tonight with their bicentennial celebrations under way, but nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see all of you here. And we have a very special treat in Ash Carter coming to speak to us tonight.

Ash has had a pretty unbelievable career, and I couldn’t possibly cover it all in a brief introduction. But know that Harvard lost their first contest for Ash’s attention. He decided to go to Yale as an undergraduate, and went on from there to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to get a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. He came back to the United States; he wound up teaching at MIT in physics and had other assignments. But one of them was a year he spent in Washington. There at that time, the Congress had an Office of Technological Assessment, wasn’t it, Ash? Yeah, Technological Assessment.

But in any event, he has, in the years since, distinguished himself for his work on national security through the Defense Department. In the Reagan Administration, he worked for Secretary Weinberger, Cap Weinberger, and he oversaw them the Nunn-Lugar program, which was an extraordinarily important program to draw down the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and try to lower the risks of a nuclear breakout, or nuclear war.

He was also involved in bringing the Russians into Bosnia. The Soviet Union at that time had just come apart and there were 15 new states. And he went there representing the Reagan Defense Department again to establish defense relationships with those 15 states. This was all as Assistant Secretary. What's that?

ASH CARTER: That was Clinton by that time.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, that was Clinton by that time, but he came back.

ASH CARTER: Reagan first and then Clinton.

DAVID GERGEN: You came back here after Reagan, or you came back to Harvard?

ASH CARTER: After Reagan, yes, I was back in Boston. Then the Clinton Administration did run the Nunn-Lugar program and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, let me add, there's so many accomplishments, it’s hard to keep them all straight. But in the administration of Barack Obama, he was first Under Secretary and then became Deputy Secretary. And remember, this is the biggest organization in the world, and the Deputy Secretary is really the person who manages the entire operation.

He left for a while, but then was invited back to become Secretary of Defense, and we're here to talk about those years tonight. Know that, after starting as Secretary, he has spent time at Stanford, and Harvard won the second round when there was a bidding for his attention. He fortunately chose Harvard and has come back here to run the Belfer Center, which all of you are familiar with.

But he’s also, very importantly, a fellow at MIT. And so, he’s maintained a relationship across the schools, which is extraordinarily important these days. And I think he’s played an invaluable role as a citizen in defense. But he has a long road ahead of him, and so we're really pleased to have him back at the Kennedy School. It's been a wonderful appointment.

Now, he has just published, Belfer has just published, a report, which is called “A Lasting Defeat.” And I urge you, if you have not seen this, to read it. And I say that with particular reference to those of you who are interested in international strategy, in the development of planning and execution in the modern age when there's so many players or so many stakeholders in the international endeavor. The issue of how you communicate clearly and persuasively—how do you bring domestic politics along? How do you bring the politicians themselves along? How do you manage up if you're Secretary of Defense, and you've got a president who doesn't really want to be in Iraq? In the best of all worlds, he wouldn't be in Iraq. He wouldn't be worried about Syria. But nonetheless, there's a conflict on that's very serious.

This is a case study of what the Secretary of Defense did, how he managed things, how he got through this. He pulled this out, what was increasingly not just worrisome, but had become very anxiety-driving across much of Europe and the United States as ISIS improved and strengthened its hold, not only on territory, but upon imaginations.

Ash had to take that on—he was the leader of that. And by the time he left government, the momentum had shifted from ISIS back to the United States and the coalition forces. I would like to start—this is not really a memoir because you spent a lot of time talking about and thanking many other players. It really was a team effort.

ASH CARTER: Yeah, this is written by me, but it’s not about me. It's about American victory and a victory of the United States and friends, Europeans, above all the Iraqi and Syrian forces, which actually served as the infantry that took the territory back from this barbarian group. And really for civilization, because if you do put yourself back two years, David, as we do, people were terrified. There were plots emanating from Raqqa, Mosul, cities we’ll talk about shortly, against Americans in the United States, either orchestrating those plots or inspiring them with propaganda that would suggest there was going to be an Islamic state based upon this ideology which there could not be, and would not be, cannot be.

And people were frightened. Tourism was deeply affected in Europe, particularly after the Paris attacks. Had a tremendous effect on people there. And this is, of course, what terrorism tries to achieve: an environment of widespread fear and the sensation that everyone is at risk. We can't have that, and if it’s our job to protect the American people, first and foremost, we can't have that. We had to destroy that dynamic.

DAVID GERGEN: I'm struck how often in history countries make mistakes and then the real story becomes how they get out of them, how they solve the problems that come from the mistakes. In this case, the United States invaded Iraq without having a clear sense of strategy. And more recently then, though, decided when eventually to pull out and to pull out altogether and that left the door open for ISIS to grow. You were involved?

ASH CARTER: Sure, and I always tried to look forward and not backward. So yes, there was the invasion in 2003, and I wasn’t present for that. I was present as Deputy in 2011 when the withdrawal of U.S. forces was completed. I believed and argued for the retention of a residual force. That wouldn't have been entirely an American decision, because the Iraqi government at the time was ambivalent about it as well.

DAVID GERGEN: Do you think—?

ASH CARTER: I think, however, David, and I argued for a residual presence, and I think not having it—

DAVID GERGEN: And your Secretary argued as well.

ASH CARTER: Yes. I was then Deputy. Leon Panetta was my boss, and we did. We argued unsuccessfully, and the U.S. government argued unsuccessfully against the Iraqi government. Now, that wasn't the only thing that opened the gates for ISIL. I think it made a contribution, but there was also sectarianism in Iraq that was running rampant that was independent of us. And the government, if I may say so—Prime Minister Maliki, who was a sectarian and a serious trouble. So there were other factors. But I don't think the fact that the United States forces were—that the United States and the Iraqi government were unable to reach agreement on keeping a larger residual force in Iraq. That certainly didn't do any good.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. So then you'd left. And while you were out in the private sector, ISIS started rolling. And it captured more and more territory, and they brought more and more people in. And when you came back, you were sworn in early in 2015, the opening months of 2015. And what you came into was a situation in which United States and our partners were on the defense and without a real strategy.

ASH CARTER: That's fair.

DAVID GERGEN: And without a real sense of how to pull out of this. So, from your perspective, what did you have to do in order to get going?

ASH CARTER: It took me a few months to learn what we were doing. I was not satisfied with what we were doing. That's not a criticism of anybody, but we were back on our heels. Not just the United States, but the allies, the Iraqi security forces, and we were nowhere in Syria.

And so we needed to put together some plan. I was always confident that the United States and its friends and allies could defeat ISIS. Important to say this, because people would say, “Oh, are we winning?” And, of course, we weren't. And I would answer, “We're going to win. This is about civilization, which is strong, the many against the few, the just against the unjust. I'm confident that we will win.” But I couldn’t say that we were winning.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. But you were in a situation where a popular way to think about and what people thought the administration was in, the game plan, was to “degrade and destroy.” But it sounded like a long, long plan, and we would never get there.

ASH CARTER: Yeah, I wasn't happy with those words because they were too soft.

DAVID GERGEN: Right, you wanted something much more decisive.

ASH CARTER: Yeah. I wanted to use words like “war” and “destroy” because I think they bespoke the gravity of the task in front of us. And they were what people needed to hear was going to be done to people who were trying to attack our people. So, you said how do you proceed, and this isn't just me, but we together. And I have to give a huge amount of credit throughout here to many people. But Joe Dunford, who was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during most of my time, who is an absolutely spectacular officer and human being in every way. And whom, I should say, was first appointed by President Obama and nominated for confirmation by President Obama and won my recommendation, and has recently been upped by Jim Mattis and President Trump. So there's a guy whose talents have been recognized by all of those people. Joe had a lot of ideas.

But we needed to begin—we needed to explain a goal and that's why it was important to use the right language and to say that we had to destroy them in Iraq and Syria. That was necessary. You had to tell people it wasn't sufficient. But Mosul in Iraq, it’s the second largest city in Iraq. It was the principal hub from which they gathered revenue, did a lot of plotting, armed, organized, trained and equipped these fighters. We had to get that. Raqqa was the place they said was the capital of this so-called caliphate. And we needed to take that in Syria in order to show that there was not a state. And so those two places needed to go.

DAVID GERGEN: Why don’t we bring up—there's a map.

ASH CARTER: There is a map, I think, that they have—

DAVID GERGEN: Why don’t we bring it up?

ASH CARTER: There you go. Well, for those who don’t know this geography, and unfortunately a whole generation of military and defense officials and diplomats and now three presidents do know it, but those of you who don’t know, that's Iraq on the right and Syria on the left. And remember, the Syrian civil war is raging in the western part of Syria. In the eastern part of Syria is where ISIS is. That's where Raqqa is. And over in Iraq is Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the south. And what you see is what I call the two red arrows, which we haven't gotten to yet, but which was—you said, “What replaces degrade?” I mean, first of all, things like destroy.

People need a mental picture of where you're going. And I thought back to the World War II newsreels and have said this in conversations with the president where he was trying to find a way of communicating with people. I said, “Think about the World War II newsreels, the big arrows, and people understand that.” And so we started to talk about the two red arrows. We had to build those two red arrows and get to Mosul and Raqqa. And that was an easy way people could understand the importance of those two objectives, see a sense of forward motion and a path. And they’d say, “Well, once we took that, that's important. And then we’ll get on to Libya and Afghanistan, our little nests, and protecting our homeland and so forth. But these two things have to go.”

DAVID GERGEN: Right. This map is so interesting because it’s reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt and one of his most famous fireside chats, which was—he asked all Americans to go out and buy maps of the Pacific and have them in front of them when he came on the radio. And he wanted to talk them through how we were going to take—how we were going to hop from island to island.

ASH CARTER: Island hopping.

DAVID GERGEN: But he wanted them to see it visually to have some sense of how it could be done. And that seems to me exactly what you were doing here.

ASH CARTER: They need it for confidence and so that they support our people because, remember, nobody wants to be in Iraq, let alone Syria. American people don’t like it. They don’t want to be in Afghanistan now, you know the—and our new president had a disinclination to be in Afghanistan. And I think, and I support the decision he made, but there's no question American people like the new president and like the old president really would rather not be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria.

So if you're going to get them to support what is needed to protect them, you need to give them a picture.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. I was very interested, Ash, in the report. You made it clear that we could have used American forces, massive American forces, and gone in much more quickly and taken Mosul in Iraq and taken Raqqa in Syria, but that that would have been a strategic mistake.

ASH CARTER: It would have been a strategic mistake, and here's why, and that's why I call this a lasting defeat. And I used those two words next to each other hundreds and hundreds of times. And I was trying to drill in the idea of what our strategic approach was. And it was to not go in, be the infantry ourselves. And David, the reason why that would have been a strategic blunder is this. First of all, if we went in, those who in the population who were inclined to fight ISIS, or at least to sit on the sidelines, may have decided that we were the problem.

Second, we would then be as infantry fighting on their terms, not our terms. Where we are superior is in intelligence and air power and fires and logistics, in training and equipping and rapid maneuvers. And we're just the equals of somebody on the ground in a foreign city that don’t speak the language. So we’d be ceding the critical military advantage.

And third, and most importantly, we would then be the owners of Mosul. That didn't work out before. Somebody has to govern these places, so if you want defeat to be lasting, it has to be achieved by people who live there. That's a more laborious process wherein you organize, train, inspire, and equip that infantry, and then you bring the huge whirlwind of the United States and its allies like a tornado circling down to bear to support them on the ground.

That is the strategic approach we used to seizing Mosul and Raqqa. And what it meant was that when we got to Mosul, the people who were on the ground were people who lived in and around the area. And when we got to Raqqa, the people who were in possession of the ground were people who lived in and around. They were more likely to be accepted by the local population than Americans. They were more likely to induce the local population to resist ISIS as long as it was there and help assist in its expulsion. And they're more likely, if they feel that it has made their lives better and that they own their city, to stop ISIS from coming back. If that happens, we’ll all be back where we were. So it was a necessary strategic approach.

DAVID GERGEN: But it was a different approach. You were changing strategies, basically, or you were developing a strategy for the first time. But it was a different way?

ASH CARTER: It was a different strategy than we had had in Iraq earlier simply because we had conquered the place. And so we were the de facto owners. But we saw the consequences of that. People are resentful, and if they had grievances, they hold them against us, which is a ticket to getting on.

DAVID GERGEN: It's the old Colin Powell, if you break it, you own it. Or the Pottery Barn.

ASH CARTER: Right. And if you liberate it, it’s better if the people who live there, and then you can help them—and this is an important point because even as we should applaud our military and our European allies, who people malign our alliance, but NATO—the NATO allies have been there with us and I have to commend them. And above all, the Iraqi and Syrian forces. Even as we applaud that, my concern at this stage, David, is that the military campaign has outrun the political and economic sequel.

DAVID GERGEN: So, I'm really glad you went there because it does raise a fundamental question. So you develop the plan largely with your military commanders, and people at the Defense Department, and reaching out to other departments as appropriate. But what's important, really important, part of your job as Defense Secretary is managing up, leading up. How do you manage a president who has become pretty sour on what the military—he thinks the military has boxed him in periodically on troop levels, on what he has to do in a part of the world. He doesn't really want to be there. So he doesn't have a lot of faith in his military commanders.

ASH CARTER: No question, President Obama by the time I—

DAVID GERGEN: And you're asking him to do tough things.

ASH CARTER: By the time I came along, there had been some rough patches between him and our department going all the way back to the earliest days of his presidency. And the things that I found most effective in dealing with him—first of all, you got to understand, this is a guy who now he’s been in for five and a half or six years. And I remembered this from Clinton, and I'm sure this was true of President Bush also. After five or six years, these are smart people. They know a lot, so this isn't someone who doesn't understand what he’s hearing.

And so it’s easy to explain. He knows where Mosul and Raqqa is. Most Americans wish they didn't know where Mosul and Raqqa were. He knew, and he knew every little town in between; Fallujah, Rutbah, Qayyarah, Makhmur, Shaddadi. I mean, Jesus, he knew all of these places. What he didn't like is for— no president likes—is to be trapped publicly. So when Joe Dunford and I would go in and make a recommendation to him and say, “Hey, we have a new idea.” And this was a constant process of finding opportunities, because at first we didn't know where the enemy was. We didn't have Iraqi security forces that were ready to be enabled. Didn't even exist. We had to build them.

So at every stage, we didn't have good intelligence once we got—we did raid, we caught the energy emir. We killed him, captured his wife, interrogated her, their information. Learned a lot about their energy infrastructure. We were then able to attack this energy infrastructure. So, this is a building thing. And what that means is we're going in constantly to him and saying, “I need a little more, I need a little more.” If you could give him some warning and say, “Look, I'm not going to stop. I'm going to keep coming in. But I'll give you plenty of warning, number one. And number two, I'll never get it in the press.” He hated things in the press, and every president I've ever been associated with has hated things in the press.

And we would keep it buttoned down so that no one knew until he made a decision. And then either he could announce it, or he’d say, if I were going to Baghdad, which was frequently the case, he’d say, “You go over there and announce it.” And we would do it with Abadi—you haven't asked about Abadi and Barzani. Well you might since they've been at each other a little bit over the last week. But Prime Minister Abadi was a pleasure to work with. But it was a sensitive matter for him to have Americans on his territory.

So this idea where we're going to pour in an American force, the government in Baghdad couldn’t endure that. And so it was important for him to have a concept that he could explain. It was important for him to have warning, and it was important for him not to be, as he put it, “jammed” in public. We were able to do those things.

DAVID GERGEN: So, your first step was to show him the plan so he had some sense that you had a thought-through and a consensus view of how to do this. And it was very much step-by-step, and it would require patience on his part. But you told him, “Okay, I'll give you fair warning, but I'm going to need more help as we go.” You didn't ask him for 50,000 troops starting out, or for 10,000 troops. You said I'll take it—

ASH CARTER: I said it’s going to be a steady—I'll come to you when I need them. Because I didn't know anyway in the end what we would need. But you don’t want to send over people before they're needed because otherwise they sit there. We tried to not keep our people deployed for more than a year at a time. So you send somebody over there to train Iraqi security forces, and there are no Iraqi security forces to train. They're going to sit there for three months cooling their heels. You're going to burn one-quarter of their boots-on-the-ground time.

I will say, to his credit, that President Obama never said no to us. Not ever. And so, I consistently got what we asked for. But I think that was possible for him to do, just looking from the point of view of a president’s own politics. You’ve served presidents in that environment, David. You know better than I do, but he has to live in the world where many things are going on, not just this. And you need to make it possible for him to do the right thing.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah, the political timetable is not necessarily the timetable that the troops on the ground need. And frequently, the political timetable is to speed it up, get us the hell out of there. You know, get this thing done, let's move out. If it goes on too long, the politics become much more difficult.

ASH CARTER: But it was okay. He could handle that. Once he had the two arrows, then—he’s a sports fan, so he thought of that as the end zone. So that's like describing that's where we want to get to.

DAVID GERGEN: And he described it as plays.

ASH CARTER: And then he’d say, “I know you can't tell me everything—you can't tell me what's going to happen in every quarter. But every team goes in knowing what the first 10 plays are. So Ash, tell me what the first 10 plays are.” He’d tell me and Joe. And that gave him a mental picture of what was coming and allowed him to prepare himself for those requests. So we would say, “We're going to go here, we're going to go there. We want to put a certain kind of raid unit in here, we want to build a forward operating base there. We want to put certain kind of aircraft into theater at this time.” And he could see it all coming and that was enough to get a mental picture. And it’s fair. He's the commander in chief, and he can't spend all day on this like we did. He needed enough of a mental picture that he could support what was happening.

DAVID GERGEN: What your report doesn't address, I think out of modesty, is my experience has been—so much depends on whether the president has faith, confidence, and trust in the person who’s asking him to do tough things. And if he doesn't have that confidence, it becomes really, really difficult to get agreement.

ASH CARTER: Well, you're nice to say that, but two things. First of all, I wasn't alone. I had in Joe Dunford an excellence of execution. If he gets confidence when you don’t screw up, and when what you say is going to say is going to happen actually happens, that's how you get the confidence of a—and so he isn't confident—he’s not going to be confident in Ash Carter or Joe Dunford or the Department of Defense or anything. It is in the performance.

And secondly, in all candor, it built over time. And initially, for me, this was someone who had had mixed experiences—

DAVID GERGEN: Very mixed.

ASH CARTER: —in these long counterinsurgency kind of things, in the course of his time as president and had seen things go badly, which they do sometimes. Through no one’s fault, things go badly. And he, like I think every president I ever knew—and you knew more than I did, and you knew them more intimately than I did, and I was this way as Secretary of Defense. I'm the one who signs the orders. There's nothing—that is the most serious responsibility you can possibly have.

So he is someone who feels the weight of responsibility very heavy on his shoulders. And you have to respect that. And I respected it because I shared it. That you greet the fallen at Dover. You sit with their families. You see the wounded in the hospitals. That's your duty, in the sense that you wrote the deployment order under which they went over there and served and the orders that they fought under. He felt that weight very greatly. And he wasn't—and so he was—and this is to his great credit, he wanted you to have thought of everything. And I worked hard. And I only say this because it’s good advice to all of you. If you would have the confidence of people, you earn it the old-fashioned way. And I would work really hard to make sure that I had tried to anticipate every concern, question he might have.

And that wasn't just to try to take care of the president. I had the same questions. Have we thought this through? Have we thought about what happens next? Do we have everybody on board? Have we thought about everybody we need to tell before we do this? And that's part of excellence in execution. People are used to that, right, and civilian—they're used to us not blundering around using military force. They want it done right. And we worked hard to do it right.

DAVID GERGEN: There had been a history, before you got there, that it was very difficult for the United States to manage the politics inside Iraq and the leadership and work with them. And you had the responsibility for going in and bringing the Iraqis along and bringing the Kurds along so that they would be working with you to make those two arrows work.

How much of a difference did it make that you had the president—you knew where the president stood so that you had a confidence he was backing you up? You were on the same page as the president and you didn't have to worry about him changing his mind.


DAVID GERGEN: But secondly, how did you then figure out how to bring people along? Because they didn't trust each other, and you've told them, “You don’t have to trust each other, you have to trust us.”

ASH CARTER: I would tell Abadi and Barzani because they would--

DAVID GERGEN: Barzani is?

ASH CARTER: I'm sorry. So, Abadi is the Prime Minster of Iraq. Barzani is the President of the Kurdish regional part of the state of Iraq. And our view, and certainly my personal view, is that Iraq is a kaleidoscope. There are Sunni; there are Shia Muslims; there are Kurds. But by the way, there are Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen. It is a complicated place. Every once in a while somebody suggests, “Well, why don’t we just break it up into its—“

DAVID GERGEN: Joe Biden thought we ought to.

ASH CARTER: And I watched that in Bosnia. I saw enough of that. You tell people—they're not on either side of the line. These people are marbled in together. So when you start saying people over here are going to be Sunnis, and people over here are going to be Shia, you are inciting the mass immigration or massacre of people from where they live. Far better to do what Abadi, to get to your question, has done, which is to say—and his phrase is he wants a whole, but decentralized Iraqi state. And we know that the Sunnis are out in the west, and we know that the Shia are down in the south, mostly. And we know that the Kurds are up in the north, and Mosul is a mixed city.

And what I said to them is, “I will support you both. I'll support the Kurdish peshmerga, and I will support the Iraqi security forces. And we will build them, and you will be successful in taking your country back. But you don’t get to keep what you take. Neither of you.” And by the way, I did the same thing in Syria.

And they each suspected that if the Iraqi security forces came up—as I was asking Barzani, I said, “I need the Iraqi security forces.” We needed them to stage for the assault on Mosul, as they enveloped Mosul, from Kurdish territory. And Barzani said, “Geez, Iraqi security forces? The last time I encountered them, they slaughtered my people. You're asking me to put them in there.” And he said, “How can I trust them?” I said, “You can trust me.”

And likewise, Abadi didn’t want the peshmerga initially participating in the assault on Mosul because he was afraid it would cause the Kurds simply to press their advantage. And so that suspicion existed. And to their great credit, I think both of them, they stuck to the program. But this was phone calls all the time reminding them saying, “You have my support. You have my equipment. You have my training. But that's conditioned on us all staying on the same page. I need you to stick to the red arrow that's going to Mosul. Stick to our plan and victory will be yours.”

And it was a great success for both of them. They had defeated a terrible enemy on the territory of their country, and it enhanced them both. I regret, by the way, that in the last week—I think that's been weaned back now, the dust-up between Baghdad and Erbil that was caused by the ill-advised calling of a referendum to have an independent Kurdistan. And again, I think ultimately, what we want is a whole Iraq. I realize that the line that created Iraq was drawn by a colonialist a long time ago, but starting to tell people that they should ethnically cleanse themselves into separate enclaves is not a great idea.

So, better if we hold this thing together. Everybody can live in a decent way. The Kurds can live in Kurdistan. They can share in the oil revenues, and they can have a kind of federalist-type system. That's the best outcome for Iraq, and so far that has stuck. But it was necessary for the conduct of the war that these two cooperate with one another.

And boy, I'll tell you, toward the end, one of the last times I was in Iraq. In fact it may have been in December, Steph, when you were there with me when we were up in Qayyarah West, which is just a few miles south. It was one of our last major staging areas. And from there we went up to the Erbil area in Kurdistan, and there was an Iraqi air unit operating out of a Kurdish airfield. Think about that. I looked at that, and I said, “You never thought you would see that.” But they were working together because they were having a common—

DAVID GERGEN: They had a common—yeah.

ASH CARTER: But you had to keep everybody, constantly reminding them, “This is the better road if we all take it together. And I'll make sure that this bargain is kept,” and it was.

DAVID GERGEN: I'd like to ask you questions in two more areas, but then go to the floor for those of you who have questions. And we would like to keep the questions mostly on ISIS and the campaign against ISIS. But we realize there are going to be other issues that might be more tied to Trump, or whatever, that if you want to raise them. And I'll have one question myself for you first.

But let me go to the question of the—now that the United States and its partners have taken Mosul, they have taken Raqqa, that ISIS is very much on its heels, and that the territory it controls has shrunken a great deal. You've written about the issue you had in the beginning—was when we get lasting defeat, what about the metastasizing question? Will there be metastasizing, places where ISIS is going to still be difficult?

ASH CARTER: So, there are. There are little nests of ISIS. They, like the lone wolves and the sort of sociopaths that get attracted to this ideology, don’t have as much to feed off of anymore because it’s clear there's no such state. But they're there. So there's Libya, Afghanistan. So let’s take Libya. Libya, there's a little nest in the area of Sirte. We supported, once again, enabled local forces to expel that little nest from Sirte. But there's still some down further south in the desert. We keep our eye on them. We’ll attack them when the government—and we do this, of course, with the government of Libya.

Libya is not, unfortunately, in a circumstance where—the Libyans are fiercely patriotic people, and they hate foreigners, and ISIS are foreigners. So if they could only patch it up between themselves, they'd annihilate ISIS on Libyan territory overnight. We have not quite been able to get them to reconcile politically.

Down in Afghanistan, they're an offshoot of offshoots of—there are various people. Most of the ISIS, so-called ISIS, people in Afghanistan are rebranded people who are already there, who decided they liked this new brand, and so they switched out from Al-Qaeda or Taliban into the new brand a few years. Most of them are like that. So they're part of the larger fight there, and then around the world, Malaysia, Philippines, and so forth. So these are small and they're not super charged anymore, turbocharged by the existence of a state—

DAVID GERGEN: So they're not attracting in—you think you've broken the back of—the United States has broken the back of ISIS?

ASH CARTER: I think that if the political and economic aftermath in Iraq and Syria makes the destruction of the Islamic State there lasting, as is the intent, that that takes away the fuel from these other nests. That doesn't mean we don’t have to still go around and extinguish them. These are fanatical people and, basically, killing them or capturing them is largely the only way to get rid of them once and for all. But they won't catch fire.

And what you worry about is in—or southern Africa, by the way—what you worry about is in these ungoverned spaces, or poorly governed spaces, a group like this has the opportunity, if you let it go, to capture territory, which allows them to tax or extort the local population, which is what they did in Iraq and Syria. Then they have resources. They have a stable base from which they launch attacks against us. That's when it’s gotten out of hand. And so, you want to keep it to the point where it’s a little nest on the run.

But the larger answer to your question, David, is for those of us who are in the business, or were in the business, and those now in the business of providing security for our people, whether they be law enforcement or defense or intelligence or homeland security. We’ll always have the—there'll always be aberrant people, aberrant groups, aberrant movements.

DAVID GERGEN: But you're talking more about lone wolves and small clusters?

ASH CARTER: Yeah, and you need to keep it down to a level where it is not having an effect on people’s lives or their mentality towards whether they live in a safe and peaceful environment.

DAVID GERGEN: But it also means we shouldn't walk away from Iraq and what's going to be happening in the Middle East.

ASH CARTER: No. I'd like to tell you that that would be possible. It’s not, and we're not going to—Middle East is a complicated place. Lots of issues, and there's all the rest of Syria, there's Yemen, there's Lebanon. There's lots going on, and I always tell people it is not an American objective to create order in a very disorderly Middle East. It was my objective to protect our people and our interests and our friends. That much we can do. Complete order in the Middle East? That's a higher bar. I don’t expect to get there.

DAVID GERGEN: Let me read one last question. A story that appeared on CNN internet on October 17th, just a few days ago. President Trump took credit for the fact that ISIS is in retreat during an interview, claiming that ISIS wasn’t on the run before because, “You didn't have Trump as your president.” I totally changed rules of engagement. I totally changed our military. I totally changed the attitudes of the military. ISIS is now giving up. They're giving up, they're raising their hands, they're walking off. Nobody has ever seen that before.” How much does that irritate you?

[applause and laughter]

ASH CARTER: I mean, we live in a world where even an American victory over barbarism can be politicized. This is a victory for America over two administrations, and I give the current administration credit for continuing the campaign, for doing things to move it along. And I'll get to the particular thing he mentioned. That's all good, and I give credit, as I said, to the Europeans, to the Iraqis, and so forth.

But I'll step back a little bit from this. This, no other country but America, could have organized, motivated, and led to victory a coalition. That's not the property of any particular administration, nor does the Obama Administration—I had inherited a military that was built by all the predecessors I worked for over the 30 years preceding. So I think we ought to take a moment—and one of the reasons I'm glad to have this forum, and one of the reasons I wrote this paper is we all blow by things so fast today. And so, if people were plotting against us from Raqqa, it would be above the fold news. But Raqqa falls, pretty big deal. The president made an announcement, so it’s calling some attention to it. But even that, nobody paid any attention. They're on to the next thing.

So I think it’s worth pausing a little moment and congratulating America and congratulating our friends and allies, notably in Europe and elsewhere, who stood together for the protection of our people and for civilization. Let’s look at it that way.

In terms of decisions made in recent months, and one thing I'd point to that I think is really significant, is the final decision to arm the YPG, which are the Kurdish element of the force that we were enabling for Raqqa.

DAVID GERGEN: That's a Syrian-based force?

ASH CARTER: Yes. And like Iraq, Syria has Arabs and Kurds, and it was necessary to get Arabs and Kurds working together. And that was difficult there, a much more complicated story, but also to march now southward to Raqqa as we were marching toward—

DAVID GERGEN: That's the other arrow coming down.

ASH CARTER: That's the other arrow from the north into Raqqa. There, too, like in Iraq, we had to get them to work together. And it was the Turks now, are very fearful, with good reason, by the way, that's a whole other thing, of the Syrian YPG because they're affiliated with the—sorry about all the acronyms—the PKK, which is the terrorist group that has been terrorizing Turkey. And they don’t like that, and they don’t want to tolerate that. And you would be exactly where they were if you were Turkish.

And yet, we were associating with people who were associated with those terrorists. That's a stretch. They're a NATO ally, and so we were asking them to accept something that was very difficult for them. Now once again, my case to them—but the time didn't come until after my time, so I think Jim Mattis and Joe Dunford and the new administration had to go to the Turks and say, “Look, we need to do this. And here is how we will safeguard your interests,” as I had to do between Abadi and Barzani.

That was the most important thing done, and it was done early, fairly early, in the new administration. I commend them for making that decision. I would have recommended the same thing to President Obama were he still in office. So that's important.

I think the president himself mentioned rules of engagement. I'm always all for that. We reviewed our rules of engagement all the time, and I think he mentioned something about initiative at lower levels, which I think is to be encouraged as well. One of the ways that I would give troop talks out in theater, and I would say, “You will see things that I won't, and we're looking for ways to accelerate this.” I would tell our commanders, “If you see something, say something. If you have an idea, I want to know.” And so a lot of those opportunities to do more that I talked about came from people who were there on the ground. So it’s important to listen for that, and that's important.

As far as rules of engagement are concerned, we reviewed them all the time. That tended not to be, during my time, much of a limiting step. People talk about air strikes and so forth, and would we relax the limitations we had on collateral damage, and was that limiting our air campaign? The real, principal thing that paced our air campaign was to find targets. At first, our intelligence was not good. We didn't know where ISIS was, so we couldn’t bomb it. It took us a while to learn more about them. Things like capturing the energy emir’s wife helped, because then we knew where their energy infrastructure was, and we promptly bombed their energy infrastructure. But that wasn’t a matter of rules of engagement. It was a matter of finding targets.

And the more we did, the more we found targets. So when you dislodge somebody from a town, they get in their cars and drive out of town, that's a target. So, actually leads to more targets, intelligence leads to more targets. That's what paces the air campaign.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah, and you got most of their top leadership?

ASH CARTER: Yes. Yes, killed—we used to have a joke that being the military emir of ISIS in Mosul was the most dangerous job on Earth because we killed like one a week, every time they named another one. And we killed everybody in Raqqa who was plotting, almost, against Americans. You see Sally-Anne Jones, who was the British punk rocker who went over to Raqqa. And it may sound funny, but she's a nasty person who published personal information on American service members and government officials and their families so that they could be attacked by lone wolves and so forth. And Michael Fallon, my good friend, my British counterpart over there—by the way, for those of you who are going to do things like this some day, serve in public life, the other people you serve with mean so much. And my pals, so to speak, in Paris and London and Brussels and so forth, meant so much because they're other people who you can trust and be in the same boat with.

Michael Fallon said the other day that she was a legitimate target, and she damn well is. So they may, may not have gotten her. We did kill her husband, who was the internet guy, in—

DAVID GERGEN: Now, that may sound a little ruthless, but these are people out trying to kill Americans and kill others in this stage.

ASH CARTER: I'm sorry, but these are people who—these are people who are quite openly trying to attack Americans, and it is what it is. And my job is to destroy them before they can destroy Americans. And so absolutely, absolutely we do that.

DAVID GERGEN: Let’s go to questions. There's a microphone here. Standard rules, one question per customer, and please end with a question mark. And do identify yourself. Yes, sir?

AUDIENCE: My name is Eddie Jamadawi, I am a fellow at the Weatherhead Center at Harvard. Yes, very quick question. It seems to me that the core of the problem here is the Sunni vulnerability of populations in Iraq, and that is still an unsolved question. No matter how we look at this, federalism, whatever we look at, these people are still vulnerable. And Al-Qaeda and ISIS grew up from this problematic—and now they may be disgusted by everything that's happened with ISIS. But this problem is going to crop up again. How do you think it should be addressed, especially given the rift between the Saudis and the Iranians, which is feeding into this problem?

ASH CARTER: It's a very good question, and I described to you the right ideal for Iraq, which was a multi-sectarian state wherein Sunnis and Shia and Kurds principally, but other nationalities, could coexist. But that's rough sledding. And you're right, and some of the neighbors, notably the Iranians, would like to see a Shia-sectarian-dominated Iraq.

And the Saudis don’t do much, and I wish they did, by the way. I'll get to that in a moment. But they don’t do everything they could to support multi-sectarianism, let me put it that way. The hardest part, assuming that you have a government like Abadi and not something like Maliki—Abadi, who’s really trying, the Kurds and I think Baghdad can reach some agreement on revenue sharing. It’s oil revenue. That's the only thing Iraq has.

Most Sunni Iraq is poor in oil. So the Sunnis have another reason why succession wouldn't really work. It would be a poor and unstable place. And so, in the concept of a multi-sectarian Iraq has to be revenue sharing where the oil-rich segments cross-subsidize the oil poor ones. That's hard to do. It’s hard to do in the United States. But in the interest of unity, it needs to be done.

And you're right. If Sunni Arabs don’t feel not only politically enfranchised in Iraq, but also economically secure within Iraq, that creates the climate for rebellion against Baghdad and the kind of groups that are represented by ISIS. So that's why I say the political and economic campaign, which follows the military campaign, is a very challenging one. And I am concerned at this point that the military one has outrun—I'm not pessimistic about the political and economic, but it’s a big challenge, as we saw from just the issues that I described in the military campaign of keeping everybody moving in the same direction. “And remember guys, here's what we're trying to accomplish. And you're better off with each other in a trusted relationship than you are going at each other.”

AUDIENCE: Sir, as we push ISIS out of Iraq and Syria, and they stand up what we call this virtual caliphate, how will we effectively fight them in the cyber domain or cyberspace with all of the policies and the complications of the cyberspace and cyber domain?

ASH CARTER: Well you might—if I take your sentence, how do we fight them in cyber space and I make it—the “them” not only ISIS, but Russians and Chinese intellectual property thieves and hackers and North Koreans and so forth, I would like—I'm not satisfied in any way with the state of the defense of our country in the cyber domain.

Partly that is because even those who spend a lot of money on it, which include the Department of Defense, but also the banking system and so forth, still are—these defenses are hard to make impenetrable. You add to that insider threats of the kind that Snowden presents, which are very difficult to combat also, and we're not good at it. Good enough at it on the defensive side. And it’s the state of the art isn't good enough; it’s just the government isn't good enough. The state of the art is—and I think you all have to be realistic. I didn't communicate electronically as Secretary of Defense because I didn't believe anything that I did would be secure. Often, if I could—

DAVID GERGEN: You didn't communicate as Secretary of Defense electronically because you weren’t sure about the security of your communications?

ASH CARTER: Yes. I was pretty sure it wasn't secure.

DAVID GERGEN: How did you communicate?

ASH CARTER: Did a lot of in-person stuff, a lot of telephony, you know, telephones. But these are all—they're subject to penetration as well, but it’s harder and the kind of bulk—

DAVID GERGEN: But you had some of the most secure lines in the government.

ASH CARTER: Yeah. And it’s a struggle. I mean, I'll tell you where, David, I'm confident we stayed good, which is in nuclear command and control. And obviously, we need that. We were helped tremendously in the security of nuclear command and control by how old our nuclear command and control system is. It predates the cyber age. And so, by definition, it can't be hacked. That sounds like good news in that narrow sense. The bad news is, of course, that we need to recapitalize it, which is controversial, but not to me.

DAVID GERGEN: Wow. Please?

AUDIENCE: So, you spoke a lot about ho,w in this recent one when Raqqa just fell, there was not as much of a reaction as you would have thought because we had been dismantling their caliphate. You would have thought there would be this very much heralded achievement. And yet, now they get to return back to the insurgent practices within which they're much more comfortable. So, how do we frame to the American people, one, significance of having dismantled the caliphate. And two, how do we maintain feelings of security at home when insurgent attacks are often intensely covered by the news media and are much easier to execute?

ASH CARTER: Boy, that's a good question. I can forego the first part of your question, the gratitude. I mean, I think our people ought to be grateful to our military for having done this and to our allies for having done it. I can do without the gratitude.

I can't do without the support for what is needed to go forward. And so I want people to feel safe, but they need to know that we need to keep re-earning that security. And that is going to mean patience. It’s not going to mean steady losses, lots of sort of constant high operations tempo. But if you think that it is prudent to leave—for U.S. forces and U.S. influence to leave Iraq after this, you're a three-time—what, how do people without learning curves—? How many times do we have to run that play before we realize it backfires?

So, I hope people stick with it. But you're absolutely right, it is a communications challenge for any president. And no president likes to be out there beating the drums of war. People don’t like to be told they're going to be somewhere for a long time, but I believe that in Iraq, and I believe it in Afghanistan. The only thing you can say is that it is necessary to protect our people. That's the first thing.

And the second thing, there is an upside here in that we have in the government of Iraq, and also in the Kurdish government—we have earned a friend, which is a hard thing to find in that part of the world. And that's valuable. And by the way, I would say the same thing about Ghani and the Ghani government in Afghanistan. Look at a map and look at Afghanistan, and then look at who’s around Afghanistan. And you say, having thought of that, having looked at that map, aren't you glad to have a friend right in the middle of that? And that's a pretty good deal.

And if we didn't have it, we would be trying to figure out how to do things like kill Osama bin Laden, which we did from Afghan territory. And Abbottabad would have been a whole different kettle of fish. It would have been a lot riskier to have to do it from a longer range and so forth. It's good to have friends who share your commitment and your values. There's been a lot of discussion over the last year, David, about NATO. We had a friend whose accent suggested, from one of our NATO allies. Anybody who doesn't think allies help ought to take a look at this campaign. I mean, some of these forces, and I can't go into details here, some of the daring, the risk-taking, the tremendous skill shown by the coalition military was not a U.S. military. There's plenty of that in U.S. military.

And they took losses. There was a Jordanian pilot savagely burned in a cage. I visited his wing shortly thereafter and talked to—and I didn't know what I'd encounter. I talked to all his friends, are all young men, Jordanian men. And it was a really awful thing that they witnessed. But they were fired up by it, and they were determined. So it’s good to have friends. This idea that friendships and allies are a favor that we do for other people is—I realize that people get into that way of thinking. But we need to remind the American people, you got to look around the world and say who’s on your team? And these are people who want to stand up for the things that we care about and—go back and review what the Islamic State was doing to its citizens, crucifying people, decapitating people, enslaving women. I mean, come on, you can't have that. It’s 2017, for Christ sake.

DAVID GERGEN: Last question, please. I'm afraid we're going to have to stop after this.

AUDIENCE: You mentioned the idea of having friends in the Middle East. It seems that the influence of the United States is retreating in the Middle East. So, how can the United States play an important role now in spreading humanitarian values to ensure a sustainable environment where we don’t see another ISIS in five years? And a second question would be, do you see the rising populism weakening the ability of the United States to spread the human rights values as we have a president that believes in torture, as an example?

ASH CARTER: With respect to the first part, if I can correct your premise a little bit, I get the drift of your question. But it is not a retreat of American power that we just won a war. So I think you just witnessed a tremendous demonstration of American power. The Russians didn't do that, the Iranians didn't do it. We did it. And so, that's pretty good condition.

DAVID GERGEN: Do you worry that the response, our own domestic response, will be to pull back?

ASH CARTER: Yeah. So, that is the second part of the question. And I do worry about that. And you're right about—human rights is an important American value, and I always said to our people, “We take our values to the battlefield.” I don’t make any apologies for that. We don’t kill civilians. We're meticulous, we try—we're not perfect. But we care about these things, and we try to conduct ourselves in a way that reflects our values and human rights is one of them.

I'm somewhere, however, between wanting to walk away and wanting to impose. And I think that I don’t want to walk away from our values, and I don’t want to walk away from the victory in a part of the world that is going to be important and could be threatening to us again. And it is shortsighted to walk out. I would make that argument.

I would be a little careful, also, however, about the idea that we can, or owe it somehow, to others to make their countries better for them. The Middle East has a little bit of history. If you listen to Vladimir Putin, there's much baloney in what he says. But he says what he means. And one thing he says, and means, is that it is difficult to impose from outside one’s values, however valid they may be. It has to be done in a soft way that people can accept. It's hard to have it done by the sword.

So I'm somewhere in between. I think we need to be strong to protect ourselves and not walk away from this victory, and at the same time I'm modest about the ability of outsiders to impose themselves inside, which is another reason why the lasting defeat approach was better. People would have interpreted it as a re-invasion of Iraq had we proceeded in a less—a way that was less attentive to the Iraqi role and to their role in the long run. So I'm kind of somewhere in between.

DAVID GERGEN: Ash, thank you so much for writing this report. I cannot recommend it highly enough to those of you who want to dig more deeply and understand a very, very—I mean, this has been happening right in front of our eyes, and this is the game plan that helps you understand what was going on. So thank you for that. Thank you for coming back to the Kennedy School, and thank you for tonight. Thank you very much.



Ash Carter currently serves as the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School. He also is an innovation fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most recently, Carter served as the 25th Secretary of Defense. For over thirty-five years inside government under presidents of both political parties as well as in the private sector, Ash Carter has leveraged his extraordinary experience in national security, technology and innovation to defend the United States and make a better world. 

Carter served as Defense Secretary from 2015 to 2017.  Leading the largest organization in the world with more than three million civilian and military employees and an annual budget of more than half a trillion dollars, Carter became known for his savvy leadership and for ensuring the Pentagon thought “outside its five-sided box.” At a time of global change and congressional gridlock, Carter transformed the way the Defense Department fought adversaries, stood with allies and partners, planned and budgeted, partnered with private enterprises, and managed its talent.

As Secretary, Carter advised President Obama and transformed the department’s strategic thinking and operations on critical global challenges and across the domains of armed conflict – not just sea and air and land, but also in space and cyberspace.  He changed the trajectory of the military campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, coordinating a global coalition of dozens of nations, simultaneously conducting operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond, and eliminating ISIL’s leaders and plotters.  Carter also designed and executed the strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, established the Defense Department and NATO’s new playbook for confronting Russia’s aggression, and launched the Defense Department’s latest cyber strategy.

At the same time Carter directed America’s global operations, he also spearheaded revolutionary improvements to the Defense Department.  To develop new technological and operational capabilities, he pushed investments in research and development to nearly $72 billion dollars in the fiscal year 2017 budget alone.  Carter also launched six transformative ‘Force of the Future’ initiatives to change the way the department recruits, trains, and retains quality people, and he also directed the opening of all military positions to women without exception.  And to make the department more innovative, Carter created the Defense Digital Service to bring tech experts into the Pentagon for a tour of duty.  He also opened Pentagon outposts in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, and other tech hubs to reconnect the government and military with visionary private sector leaders and companies, and established the Department’s first Defense Innovation Board, which attracted thought leaders such as Google Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, and many more, as well as the Pentagon’s Chief Innovation Officer position.

Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Carter served in the department’s number two and number three jobs.  

As Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer from 2011 to 2013, he oversaw the department’s management and personnel and steered strategy and budget through the turmoil of sequester.  As Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (ATL) from 2009 to 2011, Carter led the department’s procurement reform and innovation agenda, the successful completion of key procurements like the KC-46 tanker and the cancellation of unsuccessful programs like the presidential helicopter, rapid acquisitions (including the development of thousands of mine-resistant ambush protected “MRAP” vehicles that saved countless service members’ lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere), and global logistics for the largest enterprise on earth.

Earlier in his government career, Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 1993 to 1996.  He was responsible for the Nunn-Lugar program that removed and eliminated nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, the military planning during the 1994 crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  In the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill during the Cold War, Carter was known for his work on missile defense and the then-Strategic Defense Initiative, as well as basing options for the MX Missile.  Over the past three decades, Carter has also served on the Defense Policy Board, the Defense Science Board, and the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board.

In addition to his government service, Carter has taught at many of the world’s outstanding academic institutions.  He has been a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a lecturer at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.  At Harvard’s Kennedy School from 1996 to 2009, Carter was a Professor of Science and International Affairs and Chair of the International & Global Affairs faculty.  He served as a physics instructor at Oxford University, a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University and M.I.T., and an experimental research associate at Brookhaven and Fermilab National Laboratories.  Secretary Carter is also author or co-author of 11 books and more than 100 articles on physics, technology, national security, and management.

Outside of government and the university, Carter was a Senior Executive at the Markle Foundation’s America-wide initiative to shape technology and trade strategies to enable all Americans to flourish in a networked global economy.  Previously Carter was a Senior Partner of Global Technology Partners focused on advising major investment firms in technology, and an advisor on global affairs to Goldman Sachs.  Carter has also served on the boards of the MITRE Corporation, Mitretek Systems, and Lincoln Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and as a member of the Draper Laboratory Corporation.  He was also elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Aspen Strategy Group.

For his government service, Secretary Carter has been awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the department’s highest civilian honor, on five separate occasions, and he twice received the Joint Distinguished Service Medal from the Chairman and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Secretary Carter earned his bachelor’s degrees in physics and in medieval history, summa cum laude, at Yale University, where he was also awarded Phi Beta Kappa; and he received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

A native of Philadelphia, he is married to Stephanie Carter and has two grown children.

David Gergen is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, positions he has held for over a decade. In addition, he serves as a senior political analyst for CNN and works actively with a rising generation of new leaders. In the past, he has served as a White House adviser to four U.S. presidents of both parties: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He wrote about those experiences in his New York Times best-seller, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

In the 1980s, he began a career in journalism. Starting with the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour in 1984, Professor Gergen has been a regular commentator on public affairs for some 30 years. Twice he has been a member of election coverage teams that won Peabody awards, and he has contributed to two Emmy award-winning political analysis teams. In the late 1980s, he was chief editor of U.S. News & World Report, working with publisher Mort Zuckerman to achieve record gains in circulation and advertising.

Over the years, Professor Gergen has been active on many non-profit boards, serving in the past on the boards of both Yale and Duke Universities. Among his current boards are The Mission Continues, The Trilateral Commission, and Elon University’s School of Law. 

Professor Gergen's work as director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School has enabled him to work closely with a rising generation of younger leaders, especially social entrepreneurs, military veterans and Young Global Leaders chosen by the World Economic Forum. Through the generosity of outside donors, the Center helps to provide scholarships to over 100 students a year, preparing them to serve as leaders for the common good. The Center also promotes scholarship at the frontiers of leadership studies.

A native of North Carolina, Professor Gergen is a member of the D.C. Bar, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the U.S. executive committee for the Trilateral Commission. He is an honors graduate of Yale and the Harvard Law School. He has been awarded 27 honorary degrees.

Professor Gergen has been married since 1967 to Anne Elizabeth Gergen of England, a family therapist. They have two children and five grand-children. Son Christopher is a social entrepreneur in North Carolina as well as an author and member of the Duke faculty. Daughter Katherine is a family doctor, working with the underserved population at the Boston Medical Center.