Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life after Gates

Robert Gates announced his retirement yesterday, which struck me as very big news since the Defense Department is the country's largest bureaucracy, and Gates's initially controversial retention has turned out to be one of Obama's wisest staffing calls. It's worth noting that Bill Clinton's first two years were hampered by enormous problems with his pick for SecDef, Les Aspin, who wasn't quite ready for prime-time. Gates has been completely professional and classy throughout his term, and furthermore has supported ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, has advocated for defense cuts like no one else in recent memory who held his office, and has conducted himself with great dignity and decorum. He will be missed, I assure you.

Since Hillary Clinton's name has been mentioned as a possible replacement, I figured I'd write a post saying why I don't think that's a very good idea. Unlike some progressives I thought the HRC appointment to State, as well as Gates's reappointment to Defense, were both excellent staffing moves. Clinton is something of a hawk, which I think paradoxically makes her a good chief diplomat because she doesn't see conflict as unimaginable. Gates is every inch the realist, which makes him a good Defense Secretary because he'd just as soon avoid a fight if possible. I think the hawkish Secretary of State/dovish Secretary of Defense combination is a good dynamic if you have the personnel to pull it off, ideally with the National Security Adviser mediating between the two (which we also have with James Jones). Gates has the credibility with the military to pull off his role, which is the real key ingredient here. I fear that a Defense Secretary Clinton would not feel she has that credibility, that she would have more influence toward hawkery in her (prospective) new office, and that she would feel the need to be even more hawkish in order to secure the military's trust. Plus, the dynamic of a hawkish SecDef/dovish SecState strikes me as one tilted invariably in the direction of Defense, as the Carter Administration showed (though National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's own hawkishness could not have helped that dynamic).

So, who would be a better choice than Hillary? At this point, I think that Obama would have to pick a Democrat simply because picking another Republican for the job would really send a crappy message (much like Bill Clinton picking a Republican as his Defense Secretary in 1997) and also because there just aren't that many of the kind we need left in the GOP: the Gates faction is small and aging. Brent Scowcroft is 85 and is undoubtedly too old for the position, Chuck Hagel would be a possibility but I don't think he's really done much to earn it, as he never really showed guts in his Iraq "opposition" and that appointment really would signal that Obama just wants Republicans handling the military. So on the Democratic side the obvious choice would be Jim Webb, who would probably run the Pentagon just like Gates did, but I doubt Obama would sacrifice Webb's Senate seat. Also, he's not so good on DADT. Perennial Dem VP-consideree Sam Nunn would probably be a good choice, though he's not so young himself. Very Gates-like, and big on securing loose nukes, which is a plus. He'd probably be an easy confirmee too. I'd guess that former Gen. Tony Zinni would have to be another candidate too--he'd have the stature with the troops as well as a pretty solid record on military intervention, as an Iraq War critic from early on. Also, I'm pretty sure that the James Gandolfini character from In The Loop is based directly on him, so that's cool too. Honestly, I'm not sure who else would be considered for the job, but I'll feel pretty confident if I hear Zinni and Nunn mentioned prominently for the job and not so confident if Clinton's name gets tossed around a lot.

Since we're talking about the Cabinet, I think it would be a good idea for the Administration to make Chris Dodd the next Attorney General if Eric Holder decides to move on, as Dodd will be retiring next year. Dodd has been pretty irritating on some subjects recently (namely this and this), which is why he should never be made Treasury Secretary or Senate Parliamentarian. But the guy has always struck me as a pretty straightforward guy who cares deeply about civil liberties, and appointing him to the Cabinet (which is likely anyway, considering that Dodd and Obama are good friends) would be a decent way of mending fences with some of the progressives that have been frustrated on this particular issue.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.