Shadow Government

6 people Obama isn’t considering for defense secretary but should

The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department to Republican hands. But the president’s priorities argue for a technically proficient executive that can intimidate the Department into compliance and the Congress into restraining spending and hobby horses — a description neither Hagel nor the other preferred candidates fit.

If the president is simply looking to put the Pentagon into the hands of someone who shares his views on foreign policy, Chuck Hagel would achieve that aim, and with the sublime collateral damage of continuing Republican feuding. But it is unlikely to buy the White House congressional support on defense policy — and that’s crucial, given what the White House actually wants to achieve in the coming four years.

The national security community has a penchant for defense intellectuals, meaning people who work in DOD or NSC or think tank jobs creating and evaluating government policy. We are ennobled with the title "strategists." But very few of us are actually ever trained for or called on to match objectives to means. Just one small indicator is the paucity of defense experts who know anything about budgeting or think about the defense budget in the context of cost-effectiveness in spending — its absence ought to be a disqualifying factor.

Moreover, the president doesn’t need a defense strategy. Like it or not, he has one: winding down the wars and minimizing foreign entanglements, killing suspected terrorists by remote means, and training the military forces of other countries to handle their own problems. It is consistent with his broader national security strategy of investing in American domestic strength and rebalancing spending away from defense. If the president’s strategy were actually implemented by the Defense Department, it would mean a genuinely revolutionary reduction in DOD spending and redistribution of spending among the military services, greatly to the advantage of the Navy and detriment of the active-duty Army.

But the president probably isn’t going to force that revolution on the Pentagon. A hue and cry much greater than that which followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s "transformation" would ensue (recall that the Rumsfeld revolution was achieved, to the extent to which it was achieved, by continuing to do almost everything the Services wanted while also increasing spending for "transformational" equipment and activities). Mostly what the president wants is all quiet on the defense front while he fights other battles, and that means a secretary of defense who can cut defense spending by at least $25 billion a year without a rebellion from either Congress or the military or activist groups like MOAA while also hedging against a catastrophic breakthrough in military capabilities by our potential adversaries.

If the trial balloon on Hagel is deemed insufficiently ascendant, the White House seems to have narrowed its fallback plan to two veterans of the Obama Pentagon, either Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.

Michele Flournoy is a genuinely wonderful human being. But her main achievements in defense policy are giving the president political cover for the "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq and keeping the Pentagon busy with a Quadrennial Defense Review that wasn’t matched by Secretary Robert Gates’ budget and has been repudiated by Secretary Leon Panetta’s Strategic Guidance. Being a woman and holding a job ought not to count as an achievement.

Ashton Carter is a genuine defense intellectual — a physicist and tenured professor of government at Harvard. He has the advantage of actually understanding the technologies in sophisticated weapons systems, did a solid job as the AT&L — Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the mainstay business of running DOD — and was a favorite of that superb former defense secretary, Bill Perry. He is the best choice if the White House is choosing from within the administration. He too has proved largely unpersuasive on Capitol Hill, however.

The pool of talent is so much larger than the White House is giving itself credit for. They have set implicit constraining criteria that narrow the field to people who’ve held defense jobs and are already known/trusted by the president. But the president needs a rainmaker, someone who will be so respected within the building that he or she can make substantial spending reductions and command the respect of a majority of Congress while running a $600-billion-a-year business. The White House would do well to relax its constraints and consider the following six potential secretaries:

Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford. Running the only Big Three car company that didn’t take a bailout should endear him to conservatives. He successfully negotiated unions to reduced labor costs with a finesse that will be essential to reining in military entitlement programs, and he sold off nostalgia brands that no longer made sense for the company (take heed, manned fighter platforms). He’s an aeronautical engineer with a business degree from MIT, and he knows the defense business, having run Boeing. Putting the man who returned Ford to profitability by cutting costs in charge of the Pentagon in a time of austerity gives the secretary the advantage of arguing he knows how to do something the defense experts and military do not. 

Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary for acquisition and technology under Secretary Perry. He has advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from both MIT and Stanford, a military career distinguished by pushing forward technological innovations, and private-sector work experience in high-tech companies. He wrote a hugely perceptive study of emergent technologies, arguing for changes in our export controls that would allow us to capitalize on the work of foreign companies in crucial sectors of the next generation of innovations. If anyone can fix our procurement system and throw the red flag on underperforming or ill-aligned programs, it’s Kaminski.

Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway. We have done too little value investing in defense and we are slow to identify the enemy’s advantages and minimize our long-term vulnerabilities. His letters to investors are masterpieces of educating your raters, which portends well for managing Congress. Picking winners is the Sage of Omaha’s genius, which could be an enormous advantage when turned on the defense industry, emergent technologies, wars, and military leadership; Napoleon promoted his generals by that criteria. And God knows the president owes Buffett.

John Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and current chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Hamre is a Republican from South Dakota who was deputy secretary in the Clinton Administration. He is a superb intellect who dispenses difficult ideas with the grace of a genial Lutheran pastor handing tuna casserole around — and he comes by it honestly, since he studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to receiving a PhD from SAIS. Hamre was also ruthlessly effective as comptroller in "cutting off the oxygen" to those who wouldn’t implement the secretary’s priorities while still acting as a generous mentor to a legion of young government officials. He has Capitol Hill chops not only from a decade as a SASC staffer but also from the Congressional Budget Office.

Charles O’Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford School of Business. An expert on organizational renewal (with a BS in chemistry), he literally wrote the book on why successful organizations fail to innovate, which would be a hugely important perspective to bring to today’s Pentagon. He advises companies on how to foster disruptive innovation and contributed to James Wolfensohn’s efforts to do just that at the World Bank. A former soldier and great team-builder, his book Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) ought to be required reading for defense experts and would be the basis for DOD’s rethinking of how to execute its missions in new ways.

Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. A rising star among conservatives, she’s a tough former district attorney who could command respect within the building even though defense would be a new portfolio. Being a governor is actually better preparation for defense secretary (and many other managerial jobs) than being in Congress. She would bring a border perspective to challenge the "foreign wars" perspective of our defense establishment, which may lead to better integration of homeland security and defense, a long overdue synthesis. She grew up a Democrat and could therefore be emblematic of the center of our politics, and would buy the administration a defender of their policies who is respected among conservatives. And why not make the advocates of small government take a meat axe to their favorite government program? It would help Republicans too by showcasing on a national level the executive abilities of a potential presidential candidate.

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