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A Good Choice for ‘DepSecDef’

A Good Choice for ‘DepSecDef’

Bob Work was long rumored to be the leading candidate to replace Ash Carter as deputy secretary of defense, and for once, the rumors proved to be true. The retired Marine Corps colonel (Marines resent being called "former" since they consider their commitment to the Corps to be one that lasts a lifetime) has long been recognized as a fine analyst, and he proved to be a successful undersecretary of the Navy. As CEO of the Center for a New American Security, he worked hard to change what had once been seen as Hillary Clinton’s personal think tank into a truly bipartisan analytical center. He brings a spirit of practicality and hardheaded rigor to a job that demands both.

This is not an easy time for the Department of Defense. As former Secretary Robert Gates demonstrates so clearly in his recent memoir, the department is constantly under threat of White House micromanagement. National security is becoming less and less of a priority for the administration. Its attitude toward defense has been that it must contribute its "fair share" to deficit reduction. Its apparent major objective is to avoid overseas entanglements at all costs.

But what worked for Washington’s fledgling republic is simply irrelevant to today’s international environment. The United States is a superpower. Its interests span the globe. So too do its alliances. The threats to its interests and to those of its allies, friends, and partners are equally far-flung. America cannot wish away the world and focus on "nation-building at home," however much it might want to. It’s a fantasy to think otherwise.

As deputy secretary, Work will have to cope with the cognitive dissonance that is rampant in the White House. He will have to ensure that the Defense Department can function at maximum efficiency, making the most of the dollars that are allotted to it. He will have to deal with the turf battles that mark the services’ competition for budget shares; with the challenge of balancing current needs with programs that will only be realized in future years; with the necessity of controlling consumption of budget resources by the Pac-Man-like personnel accounts (and support the efforts of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission); and with the ongoing need to reform the Pentagon’s business practices. Finally, even if he wins White House, and especially OMB, support for his efforts, he will have to help his boss, Chuck Hagel, navigate through the shoals of a bitterly divided Congress that no longer treats national security in the bipartisan spirit of his predecessors.

In short, Work will face considerable challenges as he undertakes the role of chief operating officer of the world’s largest single government agency. His record is one that promises he will have a fighting chance to succeed. But having a chance to succeed is not enough, given the ongoing challenges that America faces abroad, ranging from hostile states, to actual and potential peer competitors, to powerful nonstate actors, some of which pack more firepower than some of America’s allies, to pirates and terrorists. Everyone, regardless of party affiliation, should wish him the best of luck. He’ll need it.