Why Jim Webb Might Be Trump’s Ideal Secretary of Defense

His many controversial comments often align with the president’s views.

Potential U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Webb, pictured here in his first year as a U.S. senator, takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 18, 2007. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Potential U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Webb, pictured here in his first year as a U.S. senator, takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 18, 2007. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The New York Times and other media outlets recently reported that former Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb is being considered to replace recently departed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. Webb, a highly decorated Marine veteran with deep ties to the U.S. Navy, might look like a surprising pick, given his party ties and his well-documented history of making controversial statements. But while U.S. President Donald Trump pushed back against suggestions that he is appointing Webb on Twitter, a close look at Webb’s comments over the years suggests that his views align closely with those of Trump in many areas. Webb is an outspoken supporter of building a border wall, backs avoiding conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere, and is an opponent of affirmative action. Webb also has distanced himself from both the pre-Trump Republican Party, which he has rejected since 2006, and the Democrats, whose views he has said are “incompatible” with his own. What follows is a selection of some of Webb’s comments:

On his infamous “women can’t fight” opinion piece:  Webb’s name in U.S. politics is synonymous with an opinion piece he wrote for Washingtonian magazine in 1979 titled “Women Can’t Fight.” He was a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy when it was published. Retired Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, who became a helicopter pilot and astronaut after graduating from the Naval Academy, told the Washington Post in 2017 that “Unless you were at the academy at the time, it is hard to understand how damaging this article was and how lasting the impact was,” she said. “Here it is 38 years later, and we are still talking about it.”

Even if Webb has sought to distance himself from his past views, it would not be surprising if Trump, with his apparent readiness to insult women, his distaste for “political correctness,” and his past efforts to have transgender people eliminated from the U.S. military, found something to like within Webb’s polarizing attack on the role of women in the military from decades ago.

Webb wrote in the Washingtonian piece: “There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat. And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences.”

He added: “I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”

The expression of those views has continued to overshadow Webb’s public presence. In 2017, Webb declined to accept a distinguished alumni award from the U.S. Naval Academy after a group of students made it clear they would protest the award at the ceremony if he accepted.

On political correctness and sexual harassment:  In 1994, Webb unleashed another polarizing opinion piece, this time in the Washington Post, titled “Political Correctness Infects the Pentagon.” In it, he argued that “the issue of sexual harassment has descended into ugly McCarthyism” inside the Department of Defense. He argued that an overzealous response to a sexual harassment case had harmed the career of an admiral nominated to lead U.S. Pacific Command, and that this portended “a grim omen for the future of the U.S. military when competent warriors are sent home by political admirals.”

On rejecting Hillary Clinton and considering a Trump vote:  After withdrawing as a Democratic presidential candidate himself in 2015, Webb later announced that he would not be voting for eventual nominee Hillary Clinton and openly contemplated casting a ballot for Trump on national television. “If you’re voting for Donald Trump, you may get something very good or very bad,” Webb told Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “If you’re voting for Hillary Clinton, you’re going to be getting the same thing.”

On embracing Trump: Webb declared his admiration for Trump soon after the latter won the 2016 election, telling a conservative conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.: “This guy Donald Trump. The Republicans hate him. The Democrats hate him. The media hates him. I think I found my guy.” He went on say “I would like to salute Donald Trump for his tenacity, for the uniqueness of his campaign.”

On killing a man: During a debate in Nevada in 2015, Webb was asked alongside other candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries about the enemy he was most proud to have, and he drew national attention with his answer when he boasted about killing an enemy combatant in Vietnam, saying, “I would have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around right now to talk to.”

On life as a veteran after war:  In his memoir, Webb described the shock of returning to the United States after fighting in Vietnam. He said that he found himself “staring down an emotional cliff into the vast unknown of peace, in a country that was tearing itself apart because of the war in which I had fought.”

On his opposition to the war in Iraq:  Webb was an early and outspoken opponent of committing U.S. troops to fight in Iraq, a war that Trump has said he also opposed. In an interview in 2003, Webb said that “the situation in North Korea is, in my view, more dangerous than the situation in Iraq. That does not mean we need to be going to war with North Korea right now. It just calls into question why we are doing this,” that is, invading Iraq. He added that he was no dove, and “I am not against fighting when fighting is necessary,” Webb added: “What I am for is making sure you are fighting the right war.”

On George W. Bush: Webb famously rebuffed efforts at camaraderie from former U.S. President George W. Bush, whom Trump has also denounced. At a reception for freshman members of Congress in 2006, Bush approached Webb and asked, “How’s your boy?” It was a reference to Webb’s son, who was serving in Iraq. Webb replied: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” When Bush pressed the question again, Webb poured cold water on the conversation, saying, “That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.” After the exchange, he told reporters, “I’m not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall.”

On U.S. intervention in Libya: In 2011, Webb expressed his frustration with U.S. intervention in Libya, saying, “We know we don’t like the Qaddafi regime, but we do not have a clear picture of who the opposition [in Libya] really is.” He added that “a concern that I have is that we have been on autopilot for almost 10 years now in terms of presidential authority in terms of conducting these types of military operations, absent the meaningful participation of Congress … This isn’t the way our system is supposed to work”

On countering China:  Webb is wary of increasing Chinese influence and a proponent of tougher responses from the U.S. military in the South China Sea, a position that also aligns with the Trump administration’s. In 2012, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “While America’s attention is distracted by the presidential campaign, all of East Asia is watching what the U.S. will do about Chinese actions in the South China Sea. They know a test when they see one. They are waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable but necessary role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation.”

On defense contracting: One major point of difference between Webb and the acting U.S. secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan—who served as an executive at Boeing—is their relationship to defense contractors and the military-industrial complex in Washington. In his book A Time to Fight, Webb lashed out at the proximity between the military and defense contractors and the increasingly well-worn path between one and the other. He skewered the U.S. military for cultivating a “don’t break my rice bowl” mindset, where behavior in final military assignments is influenced by the prospects of future contracting positions. “What’s new is the scale of the phenomenon, and its impact on the highest ranks of the military.”

On diversity, immigration, and whiteness: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2010, Webb compared the impact of affirmative action on white people in the United States to the brutal actions of Procrustes, a son of Poseidon in Greek mythology, who amputated parts from guests until they fit into his steel bed. He lamented that “WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers.”

Webb has derided discussions of white privilege, which he sees a myth. He has called for public policies that benefit minorities and immigrants to be walked back, writing in the Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.”

He concluded: “Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white.”

Update, Jan. 4, 2019: This article was updated to include comments from U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter.

Jefcoate O'Donnell is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @brjodonnell

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