The Wrong Man for the Job
President Obama may ask John Kerry to lead the Pentagon. If he does, the senator should politely decline.
If Rice does get the job, is it a good idea to send Kerry to the Pentagon instead? Probably not. Some of his former aides, who otherwise admire him, complain of his incompetence at running a Senate committee staff, much less a gigantic executive-branch department. He has never been known for crisp decisiveness. A secretary of state can get away with these shortcomings and still do well, as the main job is to serve as the president’s adviser and envoy to the world. A secretary of defense has to do that while also shaping a half-trillion-dollar budget and imposing coherent civilian authority on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a far flung military bureaucracy.
Then again, I could be mistaken. The Pentagon’s current second- tier leadership is ripe with top-notch managers, especially Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the comptroller, Robert Hale. (They have been mentioned as possible replacements for Panetta as well.) If Obama can persuade people like that to stay on, they could run a lot of interference for a Secretary Kerry. It’s also worth noting that, in recent years, the secretary’s job has come with a lot of diplomatic responsibilities. Robert Gates, who was also a top-notch manager and disciplinarian, made many trips not just to the warzones but also all over Europe and Asia to deal with treaty issues, base rights, and joint exercises: a fairly broad lane of policy matters. Kerry would be good at this part of the job.
Some right-wingers, especially on Fox News, have invoked Kerry’s past as an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era and even dredged up the long-discredited Swift Boat accusations from George W. Bush’s campaign against him in 2004. I asked a half-dozen general officers whether this record would affect his relations with the chiefs and the rank-and-file. To my surprise, only one thought it might. The others noted that today’s generals were either too young to fight in Vietnam (the current JCS chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, graduated West Point in 1974 as the war was ending) or were grunts in the rice paddies, just like Kerry; they don’t look back on the war as much worth defending.
Still, the whole prospect reminds me of Les Aspin’s tragic tenure as President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defense. Aspin was one of the smartest defense specialists on Capitol Hill; he was a master of the legislative process; he loved his job as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. But he was a terrible defense secretary. He had no executive chops. He was completely undisciplined. He’d schedule a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, then forget about it and go off to play tennis. The official cause for his dismissal—the ambush of U.S. troops in Somalia—was a bad rap; the chiefs had drawn up the battle plan that left the troops without armor. But the real reason was that President Clinton no longer trusted him. When a cabinet officer loses the president’s trust, for whatever reason, he has no choice but to go. Aspin held the job for barely a year, and it killed him, literally. He died a year later, of heart failure, at the age of 56.
The tragedy of Aspin’s tale is that he knew he wasn’t cut out to run the Pentagon. I know this because I worked for him, as his foreign- and defense-policy adviser, back in 1978-80, when he was still a sort of maverick, before he became committee chairman. We stayed in touch for years after, and when rumors first arose that he might be nominated for the job, I asked him if he was really interested in it. He replied, “Of course not. What would I do afterward—go work at the Brookings Institution?”
But few politicians can resist the allure of the president’s call, the chance to be a real player. Aspin let down his guard, and ignored his instincts and long-term interests. If President Obama calls Sen. Kerry, I hope he politely declines.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.