Obama's most important decision you haven't heard about -- Pentagon leaders
President Obama's choices for Pentagon positions next year – secretary of Defense and four Joint Chiefs – must not be influenced by compatibility. Instead, he needs leaders with objectivity and experience, who aren't afraid to be candid. Nothing less than American safety is at stake.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
As he resets his administration in the wake of the midterm election, President Obama faces crucial choices for new leadership at the Pentagon. Five offices will have to be filled next year: secretary of Defense (if Robert Gates insists on leaving), and four of the six Joint Chiefs, including the chairman and vice chairman, and uniformed heads for the Army and Navy.Skip to next paragraph
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Even though the White House (if recent accounts are accurate) felt pressured or poorly served by the military during the Afghanistan strategic review in 2009, Mr. Obama will have to resist the temptation to choose people on the basis of “compatibility.” This is code for the kind of collegiality and worse still, pliability, that would be dysfunctional for effective civil-military relations.
What the president needs are people of deep knowledge and wide experience who possess originality and independence of mind, and the courage to proffer advice based on the most objective calculations of various choices in policy, personnel, and decisionmaking.
After the friction of last year, he has to be able to trust Pentagon leaders not to hide alternatives, withhold unpleasant truths, or engage in any manipulation.
Duty to share candidly
Senior defense officials – and military officers in particular – have the duty to share candidly with Congress their professional views, but they also have the obligation to serve the American people through their commander in chief with the utmost loyalty. That includes supporting the president’s decisions even when they disagree with them and rejecting, as improper, the temptation to exert the prestige and political legitimacy of the military to pressure the administration either in private or in public.
For secretary of Defense, Mr. Obama needs a person who has a low partisan profile, clout with the Congress, and a sterling reputation with the public.
He needs someone who can lead the uniformed military by identifying the most able among them for advancement, empowering them to think anew about the nation’s security.
The next secretary must hold generals and admirals accountable for accomplishing their missions not only with the minimum expenditure of lives and treasure, but also with the kind of professional integrity that combines candor, strategic ingenuity, and an unhesitating subordination to civilian authority.