National Security

What It Takes

Why the next SecDef should channel Robert McNamara.

Being secretary of defense is a demanding and complex job. Among other things, the secretary functions as deputy commander in chief in wartime, manages the world's largest organization, represents the United States in multicultural forums around the globe, negotiates with our allies, works with dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees to get the funds necessary to run the Pentagon effectively, and deals with a vibrant free press.

Since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947, 23 people have held the post, an average tenure of less than three years. Those who have been successful in the job have brought four qualities to the position.

First, they have been able to get the support of the uniformed military leadership without giving in to their every whim. To do this, it is useful to have had military service, particularly in wartime. Serving in the military, and especially in combat, gives the secretary of defense not only credibility with the military leadership but also an understanding of the military's unique culture and the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women who rise to the top of the armed forces. If, for example, the next secretary wants to curb runaway personnel benefits or accelerate the exit from Afghanistan, his or her ability to get the support of the military hierarchy will be enhanced if he has been there.

Second, the secretary must be able to make tough management decisions. The most successful secretaries have either had experience running a large company, like Charles Wilson from General Motors or Robert McNamara from Ford, or they have brought in a strong deputy with a background in management. For example, Secretaries Melvin Laird and Dick Cheney came to the Pentagon directly from the House of Representatives. Neither had ever managed a large organization but were successful managers because they brought in people who had: David Packard of Hewlett-Packard for Laird and Don Atwood from General Motors for Cheney.

Not surprisingly, during the tenures of Wilson, McNamara, Laird, and Cheney, the Pentagon did not experience what Frank Kendall, the undersecretary for acquisitions to Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, called "acquisition malpractice." For the most part, weapon systems came in on time and within budget targets. Compare the F-4, which was developed by McNamara, and the F-16, which was started under Laird and Packard, with the grossly over-budget F-35.

Being a tough manager also requires cancelling programs that cannot be developed at a reasonable cost or that deal with threats from a bygone era, even if they are strongly supported by the services. After doing a major aircraft review in 1990, as the Cold War was ending, Cheney and Atwood cancelled the Navy's version of the F-22, the A-12, and the Marine Corps's dream machine, the V-22, both of which were hopelessly over budget and experiencing several technological problems. Unfortunately, the Tilt Rotor Caucus in Congress overruled Cheney on the V-22, and in an attempt to get support from the Marine Corps and workers in Pennsylvania and Texas, President Clinton supported the helicopter in his 1992 campaign. Nevertheless, being a strong manager also means being willing to take on the military's sacred cows.

It is no accident that Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense was marked by unparalleled cost growth in major weapons systems and the Boeing tanker scandal. Rumsfeld was unable or unwilling to manage the procurement process, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was more interested in policy than management. Similarly, the Pentagon functioned quite well in the first part of the Reagan era when Caspar Weinberger (full disclosure: he was Korb's boss) had a skilled deputy, Frank Carlucci. But when Carlucci left, there were so many management problems that President Reagan had to bring back David Packard to straighten things out.

Further, being a tough manager means being able to fire military and civilian leaders who perform badly or inappropriately. Cheney fired Michael Duggan, the Air Force Chief of Staff on the eve of the first Persian Gulf War for inappropriate remarks he made on a trip back from the region. McNamara canned George Anderson, the chief of naval operations who attempted to ignore the president's guidance on the blockade during the Cuban missile crisis. And Gates fired the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force for failing to keep our nuclear weapons under tight control.

Weinberger, on the other hand, allowed the civilian leadership of the Navy to undermine his efforts to create a Unified Transportation Command without firing them.

Third, the secretary of defense must have the political skills and willingness to work with Congress and get the administration's agenda adopted, particularly its annual budget. Being a former representative like Laird and Cheney helped them deal successfully with a Congress controlled by the opposite party. At least in his first couple of years in office, McNamara's knowledge of the workings of the Pentagon simply overwhelmed Congress. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, even though he had been a member, treated Congress with disdain and he found it harder and harder to get support for the Bush agenda.

Finally, the person selected for the job must agree to serve for a full presidential term but no more. If there is a perception that the secretary might be a short-timer, the bureaucracy will simply slow walk his efforts, as they did with Gates's heralded efficiency initiatives. On the other hand, all those secretaries who stayed until a president's second term did not leave with their reputations intact.

Had McNamara left in 1965, after Johnson's election, he would be remembered as the first secretary to have successfully managed the Pentagon, rather than the author of a failed policy in Vietnam. Similarly, if Weinberger had left after Reagan's first term, he would have been remembered as the person who cured the hollow military rather than the person who resisted Reagan's arms control deals with Gorbachev and paid $600 for toilet seats. Even Rumsfeld's reputation would be better if he had left after Bush's first term rather than having been forced out after the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 and he became the poster boy for the poorly managed war in Iraq.

Hopefully the next secretary will have Laird's political savvy, McNamara's management skills, and a history of military service.

If, as expected, President Obama selects Chuck Hagel to be secretary, he will bring as much to the table as his most distinguished predecessors. As a former senator, Hagel certainly possesses the political skill to be an effective advocate for the Obama administration's agenda and the progress it has made on military issues. A wounded combat veteran, Hagel would be one of the few enlisted people to rise to the rank of secretary of defense. Given his experience supporting military families as president and CEO of the United Service Organizations as well as his status as a decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel has the credentials to work with military leaders and Congress to address all of the challenges facing the Pentagon. Further, his experience in business would be invaluable in guiding the Department of Defense -- the world's largest employer -- as it adapts to an era of limited budgets.

Andy Dunaway/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Argument

Tokyo Hawks

Meet the conservatives who could soon run Japan.

Is Japan making a sharp turn to the right? Appearances can be deceptive, especially during a political campaign when jingoistic posturing grabs attention. But talk is cheap. Polls indicate that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative nationalist party that ruled Japan for much of the past half century, will win the most seats in the Dec 16 elections for the lower house of the Diet and is likely to win an outright majority.

Shinzo Abe, 58, the former LDP prime minister infamous for denigrating comments about the comfort women and nicknamed KY (clueless), seems to be a lock for a second term. It would be a mistake, however, to read this prospect as grassroots support for Abe's hard-line foreign policy. The LDP's victory will owe more to the disappointing performance of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and voter frustration with festering economic problems than to nationalism run amok. The government recently confirmed that the Japanese economy has slumped into another recession, and households are feeling the pinch. In such times of trouble, Japanese voters seek refuge in the familiar. And what could be more familiar than the party that ran Japan for five decades of nearly uninterrupted rule?

None of this means that Abe will shy away from claiming a mandate for his hawkish agenda. He has promised to boost the status and budget of the military forces, reinterpret and revise the constitution to remove constraints on the military, station government personnel on a chain of disputed islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China), and bolster patriotic education in schools. He visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in October and has repeatedly lambasted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for not standing up to China. "We will strongly appeal to voters on the need to restore the Japan-U.S. alliance, which was badly damaged by the Democratic Party government. That will help us defend our beautiful country, territories and national interests," he vowed in November.

Abe, who first came to office in September 2006, was the most ideological premier in Japan's post-WWII era, but was forced out of office by party elders in September 2007 because he was seen as out of touch on bread-and-butter economic issues. He seems to have learned his lesson: In this campaign, he has touted plans to revive the economy through inflation targeting and massive quantitative easing, appealing to voters who are desperate for improvement and willing to gamble on Abe's aggressive plans to force the Bank of Japan to further ease its already loose monetary policy.

None of which is to say that Japan's rightward shift is a myth. In April, Shintaro Ishihara, 80, then the querulous, nationalistic governor of Tokyo, announced plans to buy three of the Senkaku islands from their private owner and raised nearly $20 million in public donations to do so. The central government, sensing a problem and seeking to pre-empt Ishihara's plans, announced in July that it would buy the islands instead, and sealed the deal in September.

Beijing was furious, and violent anti-Japan protests erupted around China -- the worst anti-Japanese outbursts in decades. Chinese patrol vessels also made numerous incursions into Japanese-claimed waters, while angry rhetoric from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stoked the row. Many events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties were cancelled, as were several grassroots exchange programs and conferences.

China's anger was partly due to feelings of betrayal. Since a flare-up in tensions in 2010 over the islands, Beijing and Tokyo had agreed to dial down the rhetoric and shelve the issue. And so it had gone until Ishihara, looking to provoke tensions with China as a way of boosting nationalism in Japan, made his move. Tokyo meant well: It intended to marginalize Ishihara and prevent him from further disrupting bilateral relations, but Beijing saw instead a blatant disregard for the 2010 understanding. 

The Chinese reaction played badly in Japan. A Pew poll taken in June indicated that favorable perceptions of China among Japanese had declined from 34 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. A Japanese government poll taken in November indicates that 81 percent of Japanese have negative views of China, prompted by the territorial  dispute.

Nationalists have sought to take advantage of the shifting public mood -- portraying not just the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, but also the standoffs with Southeast Asian nations over islands and reefs in the South China Sea as emblematic of Beijing's increased assertiveness and unilateralism. Japanese conservatives insist that the DPJ has been too soft in dealing with China and that signs of reasonableness are taken as signs of weakness.

The nationalists have a point. Over the past two decades, China's military spending has increased by double digits annually, and was equivalent to about 2 percent of GDP over the past decade, funding a sweeping modernization that has boosted capabilities enormously. The Chinese military has benefitted from a sweeping technological overhaul, and now boasts a new stealth fighter jet, a Russian aircraft carrier, and an advanced anti-ship ballistic missile program. That worries Japanese policymakers -- as does the sense that China is beginning to flex its muscles in the region, diminishing Japan's regional clout. The election campaign has featured fiery rhetoric about the threat posed by China, as Ishihara warns crowds that Japan had better wake up before it becomes another Tibet.

Yet the mainstream public has remained relatively calm, and there has been no upsurge in grassroots nationalism, although xenophobic tirades are common on the Japanese Internet. As in the 2005 and 2010 flare-ups, there have been no attacks on Chinese interests in Japan or anti-Chinese demonstrations. Voters are anxious about a rising China, but don't seem to be responding to the identity politics offered up by politicians. In this sense, there is a profound disconnect between elite alarmism and public quietude.

Ishihara's antics have succeeded in one respect, however: pushing the LDP and public discourse to the right on foreign policy. During the party's presidential elections in September, which Abe won in the second round, each of the candidates vied to stake out the hardest line on the Senkakus dispute. Ishihara, meanwhile, resigned as governor and launched a new party that merged with the Japan Restoration Party established by Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka. These two nationalist firebrands will work hard to keep the LDP honest and prevent the moderate backsliding that usually occurs when a hard-line candidate becomes national leader.

But, does the public support this nationalist agenda? Not really. Like in the United States, foreign policy doesn't decide Japanese elections. Polls suggest that the economy, the doubling of the consumption tax, social security reforms, and nuclear energy are the primary concerns of voters. They seem more cautious than the conservative elite about saber rattling, mindful of the steep costs inflicted on Japanese companies exporting to or operating in China over the past several months. Polls suggest a majority oppose Abe's plans to bolster the military. And there is little enthusiasm for revising the pacifist constitution. Instead, Abe will probably secure a reinterpretation of the constitution to stretch the envelope of what is deemed constitutional, without tabling legislation or revision, allowing for expanded security cooperation with the United States. 

Nor is it clear that Abe will be as hawkish as his rhetoric suggests. Last time he was premier, he quickly moved to thaw ties with China by visiting Beijing. There are hopes that he will again try to hit the reset button on bilateral ties and reach out to China's new leadership. But will he carry through on his campaign pledge to station government officials on the Senkakus? Probably not. Doing so will ensure heightened tensions and sabotage prospects for developing a mutually acceptable modus vivendi for managing this dispute, one that has harmed both nations economically.

That scenario relies heavily on a rational assessment of economic costs and benefits that may not prevail. Although the territorial feud started as a fight over island resources, it has morphed into a zero-sum game involving national identity. The Japanese public may not be keen to provoke escalation, but leaders are alarmed about China running roughshod in the region. And on the other side, unresolved historical grievances continue to resonate powerfully among Chinese, limiting the leadership's room for maneuver.

The most dangerous wild card is Ishihara, the man who ignited the current crisis with China and will now have a national platform to launch his broadsides and work against any meeting of minds. What will he do for an encore?

TORU HANAI/AFP/GettyImages