President Obama appears about to name senators to head the two most important national security agencies in the executive branch: Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon and John Kerry at Foggy Bottom. Commentators are all over Hagel about his views on Israel and the Middle East, while Kerry is getting a free ride after the Susan Rice fracas.
All this chatter misses the more significant, substantive challenge: both would have to manage a drawdown, with all the attendant revisions of strategy, priority-setting, and management reform shrinking budgets demand. And both hail from the Senate, where management is, at the most, a secondary job requirement. Moreover, knowledgeable as both men are, neither has significant management experience outside the Senate. This may not bode well for the era of shrinkage that is coming to DOD and State.
The departing secretaries have done many good things, but neither has truly tackled the requirements of waning resources. DOD hates and fears a drawdown -- it means choices have to be made and priorities set. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has started that process, somewhat reluctantly, in his relatively short tenure, but has not acknowledged the reality that real cuts are coming and that the budget will not hold at the growth with inflation level he currently projects. As for Hillary Clinton over in Foggy Bottom, she peered over the edge of State's (and USAID's) internal problems in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) but made few fundamental changes. There is little State or USAID planning for the decline in resources that is coming.
We are at an inflection point in both agencies, and the budgetary piper is calling the policy and management tune. The question is whether either Hagel or Kerry have internalized that reality and are prepared for the tough internal leadership both institutions will need over the next four years. There are hard decisions to be made about personnel, acquisitions, and future strategy -- decisions that will require taking on baronies and fiefdoms while minding the management store.
Almost any senator comes heavily challenged in the management domain. It is not uncommon to have a former member of the House or a former senator head up the Pentagon -- out of 25 secretaries of defense since the DOD was created, six have served in Congress: Melvin Laird, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, William Cohen, and Panetta. It is less common at State, given that only three of the 20 postwar secretaries have served in Congress: James Byrnes at the end of the war, Ed Muskie, very briefly, and the incumbent, Hillary Clinton.
Laird, at DOD, served during a build-down and, as the late Duke professor and White House budget official Richard Stubbing pointed out years ago, had a reputation for being beloved, even while picking pockets. But Laird was not a manager and, as a consequence, the drawdown of the 1970s was perhaps the least well managed we have experienced. Cheney, on the other hand, was a tough manager and decision-maker (skills honed more in the White House than in Congress). Not beloved, but decisive -- he cut the budget 25 percent, canceled weapons programs, took on the services, and, with the support of Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, shrank the ground forces by 500,000. He left a capable, agile military behind that was maintained by the Clinton administration; despite the critics, Bill Clinton's military proved good enough to handle multiple crises in Iraq and the Balkans and for George W. Bush to use Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003.