Out of Control Policy Blog

Obama's Cabinet: Defense

Continuing part two of a series, Reason Foundation's Shikha Dalmia considers the best and worst picks Obama could make for Secretary of Defense:

The proper role of the military in a country founded on the principles of limited government is to protect it from direct threats - not serve as a tool of larger foreign policy objectives. However, America's defense and foreign policy became hopelessly entangled after World War II when America turned itself into the policeman of the world and took on the security obligations of its NATO allies in Europe and other countries in Asia. Whatever the justification for this during the Cold War, there is none now - and it is time to demilitarize American foreign policy.

To be sure, America must take steps to counter Islamic terrorism, but military intervention is not necessarily the best way to do so. Better would be to forge more strategic alliances and beef up intelligence gathering and special operations, none of which is as costly as maintaining a massive ground force. Thus, so long as America stays away from inappropriate humanitarian and other interventions and makes a commitment to winding down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could potentially slash the $750 billion or so it has been spending on defense every year, a figure that represents more than what the rest of the world spends combined.

It is up to the president, as commander-in-chief, to set the defense policy of America. However, it will be imperative for Obama to hire as his Defense Secretary someone who is: attuned to the security implications of the new geopolitical realities; supportive of a less grandiose foreign policy agenda; and open to major defense reforms, including cuts in forces.

An outstanding recruit for this job would be Lawrence Korb, Assistant Secretary for Defense in the Reagan administration, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. From the outset, he has been an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq and has advocated strategies for withdrawal. He believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the world less hostile to America since there are no "peer competitors" with military capabilities close to ours. Therefore, the United States no longer has any vital national interest in subsidizing the defense of its NATO and Asian allies, who should be asked to shoulder more of their own defense burden.

America's defense capabilities have been historically predicated on the assumption that the U.S. should be able to fight two major wars simultaneously. Korb believes that America no longer needs to prepare for that eventuality, and, therefore, could make do with fewer active divisions. Since he has administered many defense budgets, he knows where to eliminate wasteful Pentagon spending. He understands that terrorism can't be fought by putting more boots on the ground and ships in the sea. "What you need is good intelligence to stop terrorism before it starts," he insists. He favors U.S. participation in peace-keeping forces in Darfur and Rwanda, although it is unclear whether he would back unilateral, US military action.

Also suitable would be Bob Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, who has clocked many years in various intelligence and defense agencies. He gets high marks from both Republicans and Democrats - including Obama himself - for stabilizing Iraq. He is low-key, learned and loyal and would be a sober supporter of the president's defense policy. He is an able manager and reform-oriented, although he is shrewd enough to know, unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, that lasting reform can't be pushed top-down - you have to get buy-in from below. He has firmly discouraged the idea of U.S. airstrikes against Iran. "The last thing the Middle East needs now is another war," he has said. "We have to keep all options on the table," he believes. "But if Iraq has shown us anything, it's the unpredictability of war. Once a conflict starts, the statesmen lose control." He is unlikely to be an enthusiastic backer of humanitarian wars. And last year, he argued before the Association of U.S. Army for transforming America's military capabilities away from large-scale combat against enemies of comparable strength toward "asymmetric warfare," especially counterinsurgency operations. To the army hierarchy, which is dominated by tank and infantry officers who cut their teeth - and still stack their budgets - on old-style combat, it amounted to a rebel cry, as the New York Times described.

Also acceptable -- but not great -- would be Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and a veteran. He voted against the resolution authorizing force against Iraq and was a sharp critic of Bush's conduct of the war - before Gates took over. He is smart, learned, thoughtful and widely respected. However, he seems to have classic Democratic instincts about humanitarian interventions, voting in favor of air-strikes in Kosovo. He led the effort in Congress to increase the size of the armed forces, a likely indication that he wouldn't push for reorganizing them. However, he gets major points for voting to require on-budget funding for Iraq - and ending the scandalous practice of emergency funding.

In the same league as Reed would be Richard Danzig, Secretary of Navy under Bill Clinton. He has years of experience in the nuts-and-bolts of Pentagon management that would be invaluable in reorganizing the defense forces. His big virtue is that he takes a realistic approach to dealing with the terrorism, pointing out that the West cannot completely eliminate the threat. It will have to look for ways to contain and pre-empt individual terrorist groups and plots rather than use the military to topple regimes. However, he seems to have a rather touchy-feely streak in him. A dabbler in poetry, he believes that what's missing in our Iraq strategy is a cultural component. He wants to expand the State Department's foreign-service wing for stints in Iraq to do language and cultural training.

In the to-be-avoided category are General Wesley Clark and former Virginia governor and senator, Chuck Robb. Clark, who commanded the NATO alliance forces during the Kosovo conflict, has sensibly cautioned against interpreting the collapse of the Soviet Union as an invitation to deal with security threats through military assertiveness. He notes that it took four years of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain. However, as a presidential candidate, he was unable to take a clear position on whether he would have supported or opposed the Iraq War resolution - something that speaks to either political calculation or a lack of clarity on the issues, neither of which would be good qualities in a defense secretary. More to the point, as a former general, there is a real danger that he would bring too much of an insider's perspective to the job that would stymie efforts to reorganize the armed forces, especially since he hasn't said much to suggest that this would be a major priority for him in the first place.

Robb, who served on the Iraq Study Group, is a hawkish Democrat who is a champion of strong national defense. He is solid on fiscal issues and his fellow Democrats removed him from the Budget Committee when he demanded deeper cuts in federal spending. However, he believes that the U.S. needs to begin building up military assets in the Middle East to contain a backlash should a military strike be necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This is a position at odds with the progressive internationalism that he otherwise favors and one that the country can ill-afford right now.

Shikha Dalmia's picks for the Secretaries of Education, Transportation, and Treasury are here.

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