Why John Kerry Shouldn’t Be Secretary of Defense

Military analysis.
Nov. 15 2012 4:53 PM

The Wrong Man for the Job

President Obama may ask John Kerry to lead the Pentagon. If he does, the senator should politely decline.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, National Security Adviser Tom Donlion, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), UN Ambassador Susan Rice.
Sen. John Kerry sits with Ambassador Susan Rice and the woman they are candidates to replace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta haven’t left the building, but senators and pundits are already decrying their potential successors. The big rumor is that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice will replace Clinton as secretary of state, while Sen. John Kerry, who has long wanted that job, will get Panetta’s Pentagon post as a consolation prize.

It’s a strange scenario, and it’s probably a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

No question: Kerry deserves to be the next secretary of state. (Clinton, who looks exhausted, has said repeatedly she won’t stay for a second term.) First, as longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry knows the issues cold. Second, in his first term, Obama called on Kerry many times to serve as de facto envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he did well, persuading Afghan president Hamid Karzai to hold elections and smoothing over tensions with Pakistani officials (in the days when there was still something to smooth). Third, Obama owes Kerry something. It was Kerry who chose Obama to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the address that catapulted him from Illinois state senator to superstar. Kerry asked for the job of chief diplomat after Obama was elected in 2008; when Clinton was picked instead (a move that stunned him), he settled back into his job and, among other things, did yeoman’s work steering Obama’s New START nuclear arms treaty through the Senate—no easy task, since ratification required a two-thirds majority.

Still, the sense among some in the White House is that Obama will choose Susan Rice. Even admirers have mixed feelings about her. On the one hand, she’s amassed a string of accomplishments at the U.N. Security Council, most notably the resolutions—which she pushed through and stiffened—on taking action in Libya and on sanctions against Iran. On the other hand, she can be a loose cannon. Her public fit against the Russians for vetoing the resolution against Syria—declaring that the United States was “disgusted” at their “shameful” behavior—was, to say the least, undiplomatic. (Russia is hardly the only superpower to block condemnation of horrible allies.) She doesn’t get along much with allies either. When the Europeans were pushing for action on Libya and Obama was still deciding what to do, Rice snapped at the French ambassador, “You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war.”

The decisive factor, however, may be that she’s a central player in President Obama’s inner circle. She was an active supporter and a close adviser in the earliest days of his campaign. Top aides say that she and the president think about issues, and view the world, in the same way. That’s always important to a president, but particularly so to this president. Obama governs in a remarkably top-down fashion. No administration in modern times has been less riddled with bureaucratic bickering between the Departments of State and Defense; that’s because the tone and substance are set at the top. Hillary Clinton has been a very competent secretary of state and one of Obama’s most trusted advisers, but she has left almost no signature of her own because there has been no blank space to do so. Early on, she tried to impose her priorities on foreign policy, emphasizing people-to-people relations and women’s rights, and Obama picked up some of those themes in his own speeches—but they gained little traction in real policy. The same will likely be true in the second term, and while Kerry is hardly the type to go freelance, Rice may have the edge in depth of loyalty.

Her prospects are probably heightened by the attacks from big-gun Republicans. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have led the assault, threatening to filibuster her nomination, citing her role in defending the administration over the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. The charge is flimsy. Rice did mischaracterize the source of the violence in her first TV appearances on the subject, but, as is now clear, she was only reciting the intelligence community’s talking points; she had no actual role in, or responsibility for, the consulate’s security. At his press conference Wednesday, Obama fired back at McCain and Graham with double barrels, calling their accusations “outrageous” and partisan (“We’re after an election now”) and daring them to come after him, not her.

Few Republicans are likely to follow the McCain-Graham lead. Besides the facts of the matter (not always the prime consideration), there’s no percentage in it: Benghazi proved to have no traction as an issue in the recent election. And given the popular support of Obama’s foreign policy and the Republicans’ horrendous ratings with blacks and women, does the party really want to go after a senior diplomat who is also a black woman?

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.

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