Inside the Five-Sided Box
Ash Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs; Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
APPLYING THE ANALYTICAL DISCIPLINE of a nuclear physicist and the strategic sensibility of a college professor, Ash Carter breaks down the mammoth Pentagon, and by extension the $700 billion U.S. Department of Defense, into comprehensible components. Then he adds insights that could only come from his 35 years working inside and up through the American defense establishment, culminating with his two years as secretary of defense under President Barack Obama.
Carter first joined the School’s faculty in 1984, and moved back and forth between Harvard and the Pentagon over the years; he returned to HKS once again in 2017 to serve as director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he leads the Technology and Public Purpose Project. Along the way, he held nearly every top civilian job in the Pentagon. His passion for public service—and for analyzing what makes it effective—illuminates every section of his new book. It’s no surprise that two faculty colleagues, Graham T. Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, and Wendy R. Sherman, a professor of the practice of public leadership, both call the book “a master class” on strategic leadership for American security.
It can’t be coincidental that Carter divides his book into five sections, each appealing to distinct audiences and enriched by personal anecdotes and clear examples of hands-on experience within the Pentagon. The first section, a “User’s Guide to the Military Industrial Complex,” delves into the intricacies of managing the immense defense budget efficiently and deftly. He describes busting through bureaucratic obstacles to expedite delivery of new armored vehicles for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and revamping the bidding process on huge defense projects to inject competition.
A second section reflects on the politics and public relations challenges he faced while working with five presidents. Carter calls Obama’s personal and professional style “careful and acute, but also lean and parsimonious.” Reviewing his dealings with Congress, “a board of directors with 535 members,” he offers a survival guide to testifying at hearings.
Military-minded readers, whether armchair or active duty, will relish the “Troops in Action” section, where he details the campaign to defeat ISIS extremists in Syria and Iraq. Carter explains the rationale for his stated objective to deliver a “lasting defeat” to ISIS; he sought to convey “clarity of purpose” to the military, Congress, and the public to win backing for the mission. He concludes with sections on strategy and leadership that underlie effective security, especially in an era of fast-changing, asymmetrical threats from cyberwar to terrorism.