Exception To The Rule

Meteor Blades at dKos wrote a piece today arguing that if Obama wins, he should not name Chuck Hagel Secretary of State Defense (oops!). (I agree.) In the course of his argument, he cites Ilan Goldenberg’s argument that Obama should not name any Republican to that position:

“Appointing a Republican Secretary of Defense would reinforce the “weak on security” stereotypes that have plagued Democrats for a generation. (…) This is not a strictly political problem; it has a profound effect on policy. When one party has the monopoly on security, bad decisions tend to get made. From the Iraq War vote, to the Patriot Act, to FISA, to military tribunals, Republicans are too often able to bully Democrats into bad national security votes. With greater confidence and higher approval ratings on security comes a greater willingness to stand up and fight back on these bad ideas. (…)

Appointing a Republican as Secretary of Defense could send a message that Democrats are still too uncomfortable with the military to take on the responsibility of defending our country by themselves.”

In general, I agree with this argument. I think that the fact that people trust Republicans more on national security is deeply damaging to our country, and I do not want to perpetuate it. If Obama appoints almost any Republican, I will protest. However, a post by Spencer Ackerman persuaded me that there is one big exception to this, and when I read Meteor Blades’ piece, I suddenly realized that I inexplicably forgot to blog it. Here it is:

“Keeping Bob Gates as defense secretary has its merits. (…) Here’s the reasoning, and all of it is political. Getting out of Iraq requires buy-in from an officer corps that could be fairly described as schizophrenic: it wants out of Iraq at some point, but is acutely sensitive to any perceived slight, particularly from an incoming Democratic administration. False moves from an Obama White House will result in politically damaging leaks. Do not underestimate how powerful a narrative the following line could be: Obama is like Bush — he wants to hew to an ideological agenda against the best advice of the professional military. All it takes is a few well-timed leaks to establish that narrative. The damage to an Obama administration that already has to deal with a global financial crisis would be massive.

All of that militates for appointing someone to the Pentagon whom the building trusts. And right now, just as Gates benefited from not being Donald Rumsfeld, Gates’ successor will suffer for not being Gates. I can think of one person who would be both a substantively brilliant pick and would be instantly esteemed by the Pentagon: Jim Webb. But Webb shows every sign of wanting to stay in the Senate. Failing Webb, my choice for Obama’s secretary of defense would be Tony Zinni, but legally, he has to wait 10 years since his 2000 retirement from the Marine Corps before assuming the office. Given all that, retaining Gates for a limited time makes a lot of sense.

For one thing, the gesture shown to the generals and admirals would be instantly understood and very likely reciprocated. Second, Gates is the sort of public servant who would understand that his duty as secretary is to manage withdrawal, not fight it. Third, bringing a Republican on board with withdrawal is both substantively good for implementing the political consensus that the public tells us already exists; and would make it more complicated for the ultras in the GOP to establish the stab-in-the-back narrative that they’ll launch no matter what. And finally, whatever hits the Democratic brand would take by keeping a Republican on board temporarily would be wiped out by the esteem that the Broders of the world would suddenly find for Obama, as well as by the inevitable replacement of Gates by a Democrat.”

I find this reasoning completely convincing, especially if Obama and Gates reach an understanding (public or private) that it will be temporary (i.e., for roughly the length of time needed to get out of Iraq.) If Obama wins, it will be really, really important to have the military on board. If appointing Gates for a couple of years could do that (and here I’m relying on Spencer’s take), I think it would be worth it. And Gates is quite good, as far as I can tell. If he leaves after a couple of years, Obama can appoint a Democrat then.

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