Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sat down with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, yesterday to talk about his upcoming book, Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon. The two also discussed Iran, China, and the tenure of President Donald Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, Carter’s close friend.
The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Let me just jump right to the news of the afternoon. Oil tankers have been attacked in the Gulf. Secretary of State Pompeo has just named Iran as the culprit. Are we heading to war?
Ash Carter: I think if the Iranians did this—and according to Pompeo, it wasn’t just proxies. And so he attributes it to the Iranian government, which I would do in any event, even if it was proxies. I think it’s important to sustain the principle that the act of proxies is the act of—
Goldberg: But how proxy can you be if you’re operating in a maritime setting?
Carter: Yes, you can make that argument in Gulf shipping. However, if they were to attack U.S. forces in Syria, you might say they’re proxies too. Again, I think the principle that an attack by a proxy has to be treated as an attack by the sponsoring government is an important one. So either way, in this case, once we collect all the information, [some] response is going to be necessary. Now, Secretary Pompeo only talked about political and economic responses, and not military responses. I think I would nevertheless be at least preparing options for a military response.