<p><span>Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in South Korea.</span></p>
 Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesSource:

At last weekend’s Reagan National Defense Forum, top Pentagon officials warned about the coming great power battles with Russia and China. But the U.S. approach to both countries shows that other parts of the administration view those relationships in a very different way.

Before Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s keynote speech at the Reagan Presidential Library in California, his staff sent out the message that Carter would be making significant remarks about Russia and China, following his recent trip to Asia.

“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia,” Carter said. “We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”

Carter criticized Russian occupation of territory in Ukraine and Georgia, and he castigated Russia for what he called a destructive military intervention in Syria. He said that the Pentagon was doing a range of things — some public and some secret — to push back on Russian and Chinese “aggression.”

Republicans and Democrats alike praised Carter’s remarks as a sober assessment of the real and growing great power competition between the United States, Russia and China. They also noted that Carter often speaks in harsher terms about the two countries than do other top administration officials, especially those at the White House and State Department.

“Secretary Carter gave a sober, stark review of national security challenges that seemed out of line with the administration’s approach on Russia, Syria, Ukraine and even China,” said Eric Edelman,  a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration.

In his nomination hearing to become defense secretary, Carter publicly endorsed the idea of sending lethal arms to Ukraine, a policy President Barack Obama does not support. Carter’s top Russia policy official, Evelyn Farkas, who resigned recently, said this month the Pentagon was still pushing for arming the Ukrainians but had been repeatedly overruled by the White House.

In his speech Saturday, Carter expressed skepticism that Secretary of State John Kerry’s outreach to Russia on the Syria crisis would bear fruit, saying that “it’s possible” Russia could play a constructive role. That message is different in tone from what top State Department officials are saying. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed confidence earlier this month that the Russians would soon be pushing for a real political process in Syria.

The Pentagon has also been pushing internally against White House and State Department resistance for a more aggressive response to China’s military construction on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Carter himself warned China in June that the U.S. would not respect Chinese demands that U.S. ships stay at least 12 miles away from the disputed features.

The Pentagon waited for months for the White House to approve a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea. When the Pentagon was allowed to conduct the operation, the White House placed several restrictions on the mission to minimize the risk of confrontation with the Chinese. For example, the U.S. ship was not allowed to turn on sensors or fly its helicopters, actions that military experts say would have made clearer that the U.S. was conducting a freedom of navigation operation.

After the exercise, Pentagon officials scrambled to assert the U.S. was serious about confronting China’s claims that the artificial islands are sovereign Chinese territory deserving of borders and associated privileges. Some reports said the mission wasn’t a freedom of navigation operation at all, but actually resembled “innocent passage,” a less confrontational action.

Pentagon officials at the forum told me the White House also forbade Pentagon officials from talking publicly about the operation, but Carter confirmed it when pressed by senators at a hearing last week. Experts briefed by the Pentagon said that it was a freedom of navigation operation but that the message wasn’t clear at all.

“To ensure that China and other nations around the world fully understand what took place, the Pentagon should explain the legal basis for its operation and clarify what message it intended to send,” China experts Bonnie Glaser and Peter Dutton wrote in the National Interest, after being briefed by Pentagon officials.

Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush, told me the Pentagon has had some success in implementing responses to Russian and Chinese aggression, such as with increased U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. But he said the White House is so cautious in applying military tools that they are deployed incrementally and late, minimizing their impact.

“The administration always says there is no military solution, and that’s true. But if you are dealing with a Putin or a Xi, there is no political solution that does not have a military element,” he said.

At the end of the Reagan forum, Carter’s deputy Bob Work laid out the long-term challenge of a rising China and an aggressive Russia in even starker terms than his boss had.

“We have two great powers. This is totally different, something than we haven’t had to deal with in the last 25 years,” he said. “The primary thing we’ve done in the last 12 months is to organize ourselves for combat and to actually think about this problem.”

Work presented what he calls the “third offset” strategy to avoid a confrontation with Russia and China, focused on developing a new way of conducting warfare that would enable the U.S. to deter Russia and China from ever engaging in a military conflict with the United States.

The third offset, which includes concepts like “human-machine collaboration,” is designed to play out over the next 30 years. For the Pentagon, it’s a project they can work on without meddling from the White House. But the Pentagon’s struggle with the White House is not limited to Russia and China. Carter also said he thinks the U.S. needs to do much more in the fight against the Islamic State.

Carter’s team at the Pentagon is sounding the alarm about the need to address long-term national security challenges now. But he does not have authority to do what he thinks necessary. The result is a muddled approach to the U.S.’s great power competitors. There is not much hope for it to be resolved until the next administration.