Sun Valley: Moguls Skeptical of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s Approach to ISIS

Ashton Carter Sun Valley
Win McNamee/Getty

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter came to Sun Valley, Idaho, hoping to pitch moguls on working more collaboratively with the Pentagon.

But the armed services chief ended up spending much of his presentation to guests at Allen & Co.’s annual media and technology conference fielding questions about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, according to multiple attendees. The event is closed to the press, but Carter apparently expressed optimism that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would be defeated.

He said progress has been made in containing the jihadi extremist militant group and expressed his belief that Syrian rebels could be trained and would prove an effective partner for the United States as it tries to avoid deepening its presence in the war-torn region.

Exiting Thursday’s panel, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman and Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus both labeled the talk “interesting.” Privately, others were less complimentary. Three guests said they were skeptical and believed that Carter did not fully acknowledge the danger that ISIS posed to stability in the Middle East.

Charlie Rose moderated the talk, which came on the heels of a Senate Armed Services committee hearing this week in which Carter received stinging criticism from Sen. John McCain about the country’s response to the militant group.

In an interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin following his talk, Carter said the fact that only 60 Syrians have been trained by the U.S. to battle ISIS is problematic, but said he believed it was important to be “transparent and honest” about where things stood.

Carter’s overtures to Silicon Valley to find more constructive ways to integrate their technological know-how into government efforts to combat threats like cyber-terrorism got higher marks.

“These are the most innovative leaders, business leaders in our country and our country breeds the most innovative leaders,” Carter told CNBC. “I would like the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, to continue to be a very innovative place.”

He appeared to have one big fan. The Defense Department head left his talk flanked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who was overheard at several points saying she was thrilled. Unfortunately, the source of her great enthusiasm remained frustratingly out of earshot. Moments after Carter and his security detail were seen leaving the conference area, Sandberg’s boss Mark Zuckerberg was observed entering the building, having apparently missed some or all of the talk.

The Allen & Co. conference draws leading media and entertainment leaders such as Comcast chief Brian Roberts, Apple head Tim Cook (seen carrying an iPad), Liberty Media chairman John Malone, ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood and billionaire Warren Buffett.

Thursday’s panels also included a discussion on the fashion business that featured designer Diane von Furstenberg and Spanx founder Sara Blakely, and a look at renewable energy advances with California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Golden State leader played down concerns about the drought currently causing a water crisis in the region, telling conference-goers it would rain next year.

Updated: 2:30 P.M.

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