News - Politico Magazine

The War America Isn’t Fighting

  • Susan B. Glasser
| Feb. 19, 2018

Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter tells The Global Politico's Susan B. Glasser about his Pentagon plan to counter Russia — and why both Obama and Trump have failed to execute it.

When Ash Carter became President Barack Obama’s fourth and final secretary of defense in early 2015, Russia had just seized Crimea by force from its neighbor Ukraine, in the first such armed takeover of territory in Europe since the end of World War II, and its troops were busy destabilizing Ukraine’s east. Carter ordered the Pentagon to respond by producing its first Russia war plan since the end of the Cold War, he revealed in an interview last week.

“There was essentially no … campaign plan for countering Russia of the kind that I lived with all during the time I was working in the Cold War defense,” Carter told me in the interview for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs. “The NATO plans, and the U.S. plans for the defense of Germany against Warsaw Pact invasion; all that stuff went away when the Wall came down, and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and we didn’t think anything like that was necessary. Three years ago, when I was secretary of defense, I said, ‘We’ve got to change that.’ We need to put together a campaign plan that is military but also politico-military, and that pushes back.”

Carter, a sometimes lonely hawk in the Obama administration, had long believed the United States was distracted from the challenges of a resurgent Russia and rising China by the post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism, and he told me the new plan is an updated version of “Cold War containment” for the era of cyberattacks and “little green men” like the Russian troops who covertly invaded Ukraine, taking “a comprehensive approach to a country that is defining its interests in opposition to yours.”

But Carter’s war plan is a reminder, too, of just how far from comprehensive the United States has been in dealing with a revanchist Russia: At the very same time Carter was ordering his war planners to start putting together military options for countering Vladimir Putin’s regime, unbeknownst to the defense secretary and the rest of the U.S. government, the Kremlin had already begun its stealth campaign to interfere in the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to the bombshell indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller released on Friday.

Carter brought up the war plan when I asked about how the United States should have responded to the 2016 Russian hacking—a day before the special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russians was made public, sending President Donald Trump into a weekend tweetstorm of blame-shifting and denial as his critics in both parties warned that even today, more than a year later, the United States has done little to respond to the Russian interference.

As far as that Russian interference goes, Carter in the course of our hour-long interview on a wide array of subjects from North Korea to the future of nuclear weapons (you can listen to the full conversation here or read the full transcript here) offered a plea, a mea culpa, and a warning in addition to his revelation about the war plan. A veteran of the defense establishment going back to the 1980s, Carter told me he considered the hacking far more serious than “the old ham-fisted stuff the KGB used to do in the Cold War days, which was offensive but was never really consequential.” His plea was for action much more “strenuous” than the new sanctions and public criticism the Obama and Trump administrations have so far offered.

Days after U.S. intelligence chiefs testified that Russian hacking efforts directed at U.S. politics are ongoing, I asked Carter about the American response. Has the U.S. done enough? “Obviously not,” Carter responded, “because they’re still at it. It hasn’t changed the behavior of Vladimir Putin, and that means neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration has done enough.” He was particularly scathing when alluding to Trump’s consistent refusal to accept his intelligence community’s findings that Russia was responsible. “You don’t respond to what is essentially aggression in your country by not recognizing that fact,” Carter said. And this was before Trump’s weekend-long barrage of tweets responding to the Mueller indictment with a very unpresidential stream of complaints – and none of the outrage at Russia one would expect of an American commander-in-chief.

A brilliant Harvard physicist with a reputation as a non-ideological technocrat who has split his career between academia and the upper reaches of the Pentagon since the Reagan era, Carter told me his time as Obama’s Pentagon chief had convinced him that Russia has once again defined itself as America’s adversary – a situation he warned will continue “at least as long as Vladimir Putin is the president of Russia.”


As the contentious political summer of 2016 unfolded, Carter was embroiled in a little-noticed bureaucratic battle with the State Department over Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate with Russia on the Syrian civil war. The Russian military had intervened in Syria, big time, to save its longtime client the Assad regime from defeat in the war, and now Kerry was trying to broker not just a cease-fire but also an arrangement whereby American and Russian troops would jointly target terrorist groups operating inside the chaotic Syrian war zone.

The Pentagon was against the plan, and Carter resisted it strenuously. He “went to the mat on it” with Obama that summer, I was recently told by a former senior Pentagon official, and the dispute eventually broke into the open after a contentious early September conference call with the White House, when the New York Times headlined the “increasingly public divide” between Carter and Kerry over the issue.

In our interview, Carter confirmed the dispute, saying, “I didn’t want the United States to be associated, either politically or morally, with what the Russians were doing” in Syria. “And of course, they were intent upon trapping us, or beguiling us into what they called cooperating with them, and I was against cooperation. I said as far as I was prepared to go, and President Obama ultimately agreed with this, was that we would deconflict our operations there, we would continue the fight against ISIL, which we needed to do to protect our own people. They would continue to basically fuel and cause trouble in the Syrian civil war, and we would make sure that our forces and their forces didn’t collide, but that we could not further associate. We didn’t need their help and we didn’t want their association with what we were doing.”

At the time, I didn’t pay the intramural fight among the Obama team much attention, beyond thinking that it represented Kerry’s well-intentioned but almost certainly pointless effort to stop the endless bloodshed in Syria, not to mention showing how Kerry continued to believe in negotiating with Russia long after the rest of the Obama administration had given up on it. Obama at that point, after all, was not even really on speaking terms with Putin.

But given what we know now about the timing of the election hacking, which Obama and his top advisers were learning about over those same summer 2016 months, the Syria episode seems worth revisiting; in hindsight, it strikes me as yet another disturbing sign of how hard it was for the Obama administration to confront the accumulating pile of evidence that Russia was now a genuine adversary on the world stage. Time and again, the record is now clear, it chose not to take a more aggressive response.

Think about it: Obama had already been given a bombshell intelligence warning in early August that Russia was undertaking a massive campaign to disrupt the U.S. election with the apparent goal of electing Trump. Sometime that July, his FBI had already secretly begun investigating allegations of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. The very same week in September that his administration was fighting on the conference call about whether to cooperate with Russia on the ground in Syria, President Obama was personally pulling aside Putin at a summit in China to warn him about any further hacking. The very same week!

The Russian campaign, as is now abundantly clear from Friday’s indictments and the public evidence that was still secret back in 2016, was very much of a piece with the information warfare and political destabilization operations the Kremlin had been waging in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe for several years.

Carter had already ordered up his Pentagon war plan against the Russians two years earlier, and he told me he was not at all surprised by the hacking once he started hearing about it. “It was what I saw on the military side the Russians doing in Ukraine, in the Baltics, and elsewhere, which is little green men, cyberattacks, the big lie, and other ways of manipulating the information domain,” Carter said. “I wasn’t at all surprised that they were doing it in the United States.”

But the surprise, then and now, was not that Russia was doing it. Read President Trump’s tweets from this weekend, or the long, tortured tick-tock the Washington Post produced some months ago of team Obama’s deliberations about how to respond to the hacks.

The surprise, in 2016 and still today in 2018, was that America chose not really to respond.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Glasser, Susan B.. “The War America Isn’t Fighting.” News, Politico Magazine, February 19, 2018.

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