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Ash Carter, Former Defense Secretary, on Iran and Trump

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Goldberg: What would your—sorry to use a fraught expression from your White House—but what would your red line be for the U.S. to take action, military action in the Gulf?

Carter: Well, the lesson I have learned from observing red lines over a number of decades and a number of presidents, including President Obama, is don’t draw them in the first place.

Goldberg: The first rule of red lines is don’t draw them.

Carter: Yeah, so I’m not going to do that. Unless you clearly see what the purpose is, don’t do it. I do think, were they to take any action like that against a U.S. military vessel, that’s top of the tier. Then you get U.S. flag vessels, of which there are almost none there, in this case this is international shipping but again, I think some action will probably be taken like Pomepo said so. But you know we’re in the very early hours now. As I say in the book, how do you manage circumstances like this? I was in office when we learned that 10 U.S. sailors had been taken prisoner or hostage by the Iranian military. In these fast-moving situations you’ve got to keep your wits about you, and the first thing you have to ask yourself is, what do I feel safe saying? That’s why it took a number of hours, I guess, for Mike Pompeo—and he’s probably pretty careful about what he said about political and economic response.

And don’t get out in front of your headlights because people are screaming for you to say something. And the other thing is, you’ve got to give people some actions to take. And so it’s important that Acting Secretary Shanahan and Pompeo are doing some things now. First of all, it shows that you’re alive and awake, and that’s important. Second, it gives your—

Goldberg: That’s a low standard for a government entity.

Carter: But I think otherwise there becomes a narrative of inaction, which is a narrative of not knowing what your mind is. Which is not the same thing as not completely knowing all the facts of a given situation. So it is important to say something, and it is important to do something early in the hours of a crisis, even if you don’t fully know everything, because you kind of have to fill the void.

Goldberg: You worked for one of the most disciplined presidents in history. And we have now, I think it’s fair to say, one of the lesser-most disciplined presidents in history. Can a tweet, at this point, cause a move toward something kinetic?

Carter: I don’t think a tweet would be construed as an order, if that’s your question.

Goldberg: That’s half of a question. Can the other side misinterpret it?

Carter: Let’s just be clear. The other side, yes, these tweets are more consequential. Now, if you had to predict what kind of tweet might come out of this particular circumstance with respect to Iran, given the president’s history of tweeting on Iran, it’s likely to be softer than anything Secretary Pompeo had to say, and he already was only talking about political and military response. Now, that’s from the outside looking in.

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