Bench Press

It doesn't matter that Chuck Hagel is a Republican -- or even a defense expert.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, some analysts and many Democrats will bemoan the fact that a Democratic president once again needs to rely on a Republican to fill a top national security position. According to this view, the Democratic national security bench is much thinner than the Republicans’. But, since the end of World War II, presidents have often appointed members of the other party (as well as career civil servants) to key posts.

Yes, President Clinton appointed a Republican senator, William Cohen, to succeed Democratic defense intellectual William Perry as secretary of defense late in his second term. But George W. Bush kept on Clinton appointee George Tenet as his first CIA director. Likewise, right after his election, Richard Nixon offered the post of secretary of defense to Democratic Senator Henry Jackson, and the man who was eventually confirmed as secretary, Melvin Laird, kept on many Democrats, including Paul Warnke, when he took over the Pentagon. Reagan appointed former Jackson staffer Richard Perle, former Carter Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, and Democratic heavyweight Paul Nitze to key posts on his national security team.

President Obama did keep a Bush appointee, Robert Gates, on as his secretary of defense, but Gates is a career CIA officer who, as he noted repeatedly, had served under seven presidents from both parties throughout his four decades in government. Moreover, George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, General Colin Powell, was a career military officer who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bill Clinton and who had actually been offered the post of secretary of state by Clinton. And Reagan appointed career Foreign Service Officer Frank Carlucci, who had served as deputy CIA director in the Carter administration, to be both deputy secretary and then secretary of defense.

Not only have presidents often gone outside their own parties to fill key national security posts, they’ve often gone outside the national security establishment altogether. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, is an economist who served in the Nixon administration as labor secretary, as head of the Office of Management and Budget, and then as treasury secretary. Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, had also run OMB and was secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Nixon administration. In addition, one of his national security advisors, William Clark, was a judge in California.

Similarly, George H.W. Bush appointed James Baker to be his secretary of state even though Baker’s previous government service was as secretary of the treasury and White House chief of staff. Moreover, when he selected Congressman Dick Cheney to run the Pentagon, Cheney had had only minimal involvement with defense matters during his time on the Hill.

Based on the criteria used by Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Democratic bench is plenty deep. President Obama could have turned to successful Democratic executives such as Secretary of Education Arnold Duncan, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, White House chief of staff and former OMB director Jack Lew, or former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers for high-level national security posts. Previous presidents have also turned to individuals from outside government with little or no background in foreign policy or partisan politics. Dwight Eisenhower selected Charles Wilson from General Motors to run the Pentagon, and John Kennedy chose Robert McNamara from Ford for the same post.

And the "deep Republican bench" did not help George W. Bush when it came to running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the three top Republicans in the Bush Pentagon — namely Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith — had all served previously in the Pentagon did not prevent them from messing up both wars.

But even before Hagel’s nomination was made official, three Republican senators — Tom Coburn (R-OK), Dan Coats (R-IN), and John Cornyn (R-TX) — said they would not vote for him.

Coburn says Hagel does not have the experience to manage a large organization like the Pentagon. Leaving aside the fact that Hagel has held many private and public sector management positions, does this mean that Coburn would have voted against two of the more successful secretaries of defense who came directly from the House, namely Republicans Melvin Laird and Dick Cheney?

Coats contends that Hagel has shown much disrespect for the military. Really? He disrespects it so much that he volunteered to serve in combat, was awarded two Purple Hearts, and coauthored the 9/11 GI Bill over the opposition of the Bush administration. (Coats, by the way, was turned down for the secretary of defense post by George W. Bush after he was interviewed for the job.) Does this mean that Coats would have voted against Caspar Weinberger and Leon Panetta, who both tried to slash defense spending while running OMB?

Cornyn says he cannot vote for Hagel because of his problem with Israel. What problem? According to several retired ambassadors, flag officers, former national security advisors, a former Republican secretary of defense, and former senators from both parties, no one has been more steadfast in supporting America’s commitment to Israel than Hagel. And would Cornyn have voted against James Baker, who had a problem with Israel’s settlement expansion and cut off loan guarantees to the country?

Neoconservatives like William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, argue that for all these reasons the case for Hagel is extraordinarily weak. Really? Hagel has the legislative background of Cheney, Laird, and Cohen; the management experience of McNamara and Wilson; and more Purple Hearts than his 23 predecessors combined. That’s why the president nominated Hagel — and why he was right to do so.

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