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.

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.

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.

Related: Admiral Mullen: foreign policy is too dominated by the military

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.

Reducing Pentagon budget

The new secretary will also have to reduce the Pentagon’s budget while at the same time strengthening the national defense. That’s no easy puzzle, because it will necessitate a fundamental rethinking of a military establishment still wedded to its cold war weapons, force structure, and ways of thinking.

For chairmen, the president must find distinguished officers who can speak for the profession of arms to the White House, Congress, and the public – and speak to the armed services, as their most senior leaders, on issues of professionalism, nonpartisanship, civilian control, sacrifice, and selflessness. The new chairman and vice chairman must beyond all else inspire trust with the civilians as to their honesty and subordination, and their understanding of what that entails, in the pressure cooker of excruciatingly difficult, and momentous, decisions.

The two new service chiefs (and a third, a new chief of staff of the air force in 2012), must be men or women who can speak to and for their services, and represent the best thinking about war and the kind of people, weapons, and organizations necessary to wage it in the domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.

Wisdom and nerve

Above all, they must have the wisdom, and even more important, the unflinching nerve and cold objectivity necessary to recommend who among their peers and subordinates have the talent, character, and understanding to fill those critical major commands that lead American and allied forces in battle.

As he ponders his choices, Mr. Obama might look back at his most notable predecessors. Abraham Lincoln, desperate for competence and success, hardly considered “compatibility” for either the civilian or military leadership of the armed forces.

Nor, during World War II, did Franklin Roosevelt use that standard to appoint to the Cabinet Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, and to the Army and Navy leadership George C. Marshall and Ernest J. King. FDR knew these men well enough to recognize that none were exactly easygoing personalities.

All five appointments (and the sixth in 2012) will be among most consequential decisions of the Obama presidency. What these people do will long outlast their own, and the president’s, tenure in office.

Nothing less than the safety of the American Republic will be affected by their actions and decisions.

Richard H. Kohn, a specialist in civil-military relations and a former Chief of Air Force History for the United States Air Force, teaches military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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