When Robert Gates leaves, it's time for a Democratic defense secretary

By Tammy S. Schultz
Sunday, October 3, 2010

In 2006, when Robert Gates left his post as president of Texas A&M University to become secretary of defense, he placed a special clock in his briefcase that counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Jan. 20, 2009. That's when President George W. Bush's term would be up, and when Gates could leave the pressures of public life and retire to his family home in the Pacific Northwest. That countdown has long since expired, but Gates's retirement hopes live on. He continues to talk about his plans to step down, most recently in a Foreign Policy magazine interview and at a Pentagon briefing late last month, when he emphasized his desire to leave next year.

When Gates does depart, President Obama has an opportunity to do something important for his party and his country: appoint a Democrat as defense secretary. It doesn't sound novel that a president would pick someone from his party for a key Cabinet position. But such a move actually would run counter to the Democratic habit of appointing Republicans to top national security positions -- an inclination that stems from an unnecessary lack of confidence when it comes to keeping America safe.

Since the birth of our nation, about one in three Democratic presidents has appointed a Republican secretary of defense (or war). By contrast, only one Republican president has appointed a Democrat to the post; this was during the very first Republican administration, when President Abraham Lincoln included Secretary of War Edward Stanton in his "team of rivals."

Democrats' apparent unwillingness to consistently field a politically unified civilian national security team demonstrates a troubling deficit of self-assurance, and it does not serve their party, or the nation, well. America is better off when both parties show competency across the range of issues facing the nation. With power should come responsibility, but it is difficult to hold a party accountable for policies that it can claim were made by politicians of another stripe.

This is not a criticism of Gates. He has served his country, and the president, admirably. He has supported many of Obama's foreign policy goals, such as returning the military's focus to the war in Afghanistan. And he is widely acknowledged in both political parties to be one of the best defense secretaries in the nation's history.

When Obama took office and asked Gates to stay on, the United States was in the midst of two wars and a global campaign against violent extremism. There were good reasons not to change horses midstream. But this was not an inevitable decision. President Richard Nixon, for example, made a different choice when he took over the Vietnam War from President Lyndon Johnson, cleaning out the entire Cabinet and appointing Republicans across the board.

The most recent defense secretary to serve under a Democratic president was also a Republican, Bill Cohen. President Bill Clinton started with two Democrats in the role: Les Aspin, who had a brief tenure, and then Bill Perry. Following the "don't ask, don't tell" debacle, as well as ill-fated U.S. operations in Somalia and the "Black Hawk down" incident there, Clinton wanted fewer battles with the Pentagon. One way to try to bulletproof his administration was to put a Republican at the Defense Department's helm.

The Clinton White House was good to national security Democrats in other ways, however. Clinton filled many of his lower-level security slots with sharp young Democrats such as Kurt Campbell, Michèle Flournoy, Susan Rice, Sarah Sewall and James Steinberg. The presence of this strong group is one reason that the Democrats' apparent lack of confidence on national security is so peculiar.

There are three possible explanations. The first and most obvious involves a "national security gap" that emerged after Vietnam, with the public generally more skeptical about the Democrats' ability to keep the country safe. A compilation of polls by the Truman National Security Project shows Democrats trailing Republicans in public trust on national security by 20 to 40 points since 1968. Although the tenure of George W. Bush narrowed that gap, a March 2010 poll by Democracy Corps and Third Way still had Democrats behind by 17 points.

Could it be that the Republicans have a deeper national security bench than the Democrats? Absolutely not. Several seasoned Democrats who gained experience during previous administrations await Gates's departure: Flournoy, who serves at the Pentagon as undersecretary for policy; former Navy secretary Richard Danzig; John Hamre, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, who previously served as deputy defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, who needs no introduction. The Democratic bench is full of talent.

Third, it may be that Democrats are striving to keep foreign policy nonpartisan. For the sake of our friends and our foes, it is best for the United States to be perceived as having enduring principles and strategies that both parties agree upon. But it seems that only the Democratic Party is interested in making sure that "politics stops at the water's edge," as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg said at the start of the Cold War. Many Democrats argue that they are more willing to cross party lines than their Republican counterparts, and Obama has stressed his desire to work with Republicans.

Even if this bipartisan motivation is worthy, however, it is one thing for Democrats to reach across the aisle to formulate policies and quite another to cede a top leadership position to political rivals. One must question who, exactly, such unilateral bipartisanship serves.

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