What It Takes

Why the next SecDef should channel Robert McNamara.

Andy Dunaway/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images
Andy Dunaway/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Being secretary of defense is a demanding and complex job. Among other things, the secretary functions as deputy commander in chief in wartime, manages the world’s largest organization, represents the United States in multicultural forums around the globe, negotiates with our allies, works with dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees to get the funds necessary to run the Pentagon effectively, and deals with a vibrant free press.

Since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947, 23 people have held the post, an average tenure of less than three years. Those who have been successful in the job have brought four qualities to the position.

First, they have been able to get the support of the uniformed military leadership without giving in to their every whim. To do this, it is useful to have had military service, particularly in wartime. Serving in the military, and especially in combat, gives the secretary of defense not only credibility with the military leadership but also an understanding of the military’s unique culture and the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women who rise to the top of the armed forces. If, for example, the next secretary wants to curb runaway personnel benefits or accelerate the exit from Afghanistan, his or her ability to get the support of the military hierarchy will be enhanced if he has been there.

Second, the secretary must be able to make tough management decisions. The most successful secretaries have either had experience running a large company, like Charles Wilson from General Motors or Robert McNamara from Ford, or they have brought in a strong deputy with a background in management. For example, Secretaries Melvin Laird and Dick Cheney came to the Pentagon directly from the House of Representatives. Neither had ever managed a large organization but were successful managers because they brought in people who had: David Packard of Hewlett-Packard for Laird and Don Atwood from General Motors for Cheney.

Not surprisingly, during the tenures of Wilson, McNamara, Laird, and Cheney, the Pentagon did not experience what Frank Kendall, the undersecretary for acquisitions to Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, called "acquisition malpractice." For the most part, weapon systems came in on time and within budget targets. Compare the F-4, which was developed by McNamara, and the F-16, which was started under Laird and Packard, with the grossly over-budget F-35.

Being a tough manager also requires cancelling programs that cannot be developed at a reasonable cost or that deal with threats from a bygone era, even if they are strongly supported by the services. After doing a major aircraft review in 1990, as the Cold War was ending, Cheney and Atwood cancelled the Navy’s version of the F-22, the A-12, and the Marine Corps’s dream machine, the V-22, both of which were hopelessly over budget and experiencing several technological problems. Unfortunately, the Tilt Rotor Caucus in Congress overruled Cheney on the V-22, and in an attempt to get support from the Marine Corps and workers in Pennsylvania and Texas, President Clinton supported the helicopter in his 1992 campaign. Nevertheless, being a strong manager also means being willing to take on the military’s sacred cows.

It is no accident that Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of defense was marked by unparalleled cost growth in major weapons systems and the Boeing tanker scandal. Rumsfeld was unable or unwilling to manage the procurement process, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was more interested in policy than management. Similarly, the Pentagon functioned quite well in the first part of the Reagan era when Caspar Weinberger (full disclosure: he was Korb’s boss) had a skilled deputy, Frank Carlucci. But when Carlucci left, there were so many management problems that President Reagan had to bring back David Packard to straighten things out.

Further, being a tough manager means being able to fire military and civilian leaders who perform badly or inappropriately. Cheney fired Michael Duggan, the Air Force Chief of Staff on the eve of the first Persian Gulf War for inappropriate remarks he made on a trip back from the region. McNamara canned George Anderson, the chief of naval operations who attempted to ignore the president’s guidance on the blockade during the Cuban missile crisis. And Gates fired the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force for failing to keep our nuclear weapons under tight control.

Weinberger, on the other hand, allowed the civilian leadership of the Navy to undermine his efforts to create a Unified Transportation Command without firing them.

Third, the secretary of defense must have the political skills and willingness to work with Congress and get the administration’s agenda adopted, particularly its annual budget. Being a former representative like Laird and Cheney helped them deal successfully with a Congress controlled by the opposite party. At least in his first couple of years in office, McNamara’s knowledge of the workings of the Pentagon simply overwhelmed Congress. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, even though he had been a member, treated Congress with disdain and he found it harder and harder to get support for the Bush agenda.

Finally, the person selected for the job must agree to serve for a full presidential term but no more. If there is a perception that the secretary might be a short-timer, the bureaucracy will simply slow walk his efforts, as they did with Gates’s heralded efficiency initiatives. On the other hand, all those secretaries who stayed until a president’s second term did not leave with their reputations intact.

Had McNamara left in 1965, after Johnson’s election, he would be remembered as the first secretary to have successfully managed the Pentagon, rather than the author of a failed policy in Vietnam. Similarly, if Weinberger had left after Reagan’s first term, he would have been remembered as the person who cured the hollow military rather than the person who resisted Reagan’s arms control deals with Gorbachev and paid $600 for toilet seats. Even Rumsfeld’s reputation would be better if he had left after Bush’s first term rather than having been forced out after the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 and he became the poster boy for the poorly managed war in Iraq.

Hopefully the next secretary will have Laird’s political savvy, McNamara’s management skills, and a history of military service.

If, as expected, President Obama selects Chuck Hagel to be secretary, he will bring as much to the table as his most distinguished predecessors. As a former senator, Hagel certainly possesses the political skill to be an effective advocate for the Obama administration’s agenda and the progress it has made on military issues. A wounded combat veteran, Hagel would be one of the few enlisted people to rise to the rank of secretary of defense. Given his experience supporting military families as president and CEO of the United Service Organizations as well as his status as a decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel has the credentials to work with military leaders and Congress to address all of the challenges facing the Pentagon. Further, his experience in business would be invaluable in guiding the Department of Defense — the world’s largest employer — as it adapts to an era of limited budgets.

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