News & Politics

The Pupil and the Master: Ash Carter Pays Tribute to Brent Scowcroft

Ashton Carter (left), the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and his mentor Brent Scowcroft, who was honored at a dinner in Washington Tuesday. Photo by Carol Ross Joynt

When Ash Carter, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, was a 32-year-old associate professor at Harvard, he was asked to accompany a US arms control delegation to Moscow. The Reagan administration wanted to examine a new laser system that the Soviets claimed would be used to research the surface of Mars, but that might also be deployed as an space-based anti-missile system. 

Carter had studied physics and had once worked as a missile-defense analyst. He was expected to give his analysis (the delegation later concluded the Soviet laser could violate a ballistic missile treaty that had been in place for 15 years), but he didn’t expect his contribution to carry much weight. 

“I was a nobody,” Carter said at a dinner in Washington on Tuesday, honoring Brent Scowcroft, who was then a leading thinker on US-Soviet nuclear relations, and would, in a few years, be the national security adviser to George W. Bush. “Brent listened to me. He treated me as an equal.” It was the beginning of a mentorship that, as Carter tells it, led to his advising a string of secretaries of defense, and now to his own position as the No. 2 at the Pentagon. 

“The influence of Brent Scowcroft stands before you: Me.”     

When a protege talks about of his mentor, at the end of his career, the tone inevitably gets eulogistic. Scowcroft is 87. He has been out of government for two decades, though he remains an eminence grise in national security and business circles. And while Carter hardly gave a valediction, there was a certain wistfulness–how could there not be?–in saluting an aged Cold Warrior. 

“We were closer to war with the Soviets than anyone, except Brent, might have realized,” Carter said. “As you go to sleep tonight and reflect on this evening, remember it all could have been very different if not for [him].” 

When it came time for Scowcroft to talk, he made no pretense of his utter bafflement at the complex state of global affairs today. In the Cold War, he said, “The threat of a thermonuclear war…was just over the horizon.” But in the possibility of annihilation  there was a certain clarity. “The world was given to us. Our strategy was containment. …That made things a lot easier.” He shook his head. “But not today. There is no overarching strategy.” It was not a critique of any administration. Just an observation that, in his day, things were somehow simpler. 

Scowcroft, smiling tenderly, turned to his pupil: “Ash Carter, thank you for taking time off tonight from problems I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”