The next steps in this process are as predictable as the sunrise: when some outsider suggests a budget cut, the DOD bureaucracies easily convince the secretary that their "affordable" and "effective" weapon systems will no longer be available. Then, the secretary proclaims the idea of insufficient resources for these pet rocks to be a "doomsday." In doing so, facilitators of business as usual like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thoroughly isolate themselves from the fact that the additional cost and low performance of these systems is much of what is driving the budget beyond acceptable levels of spending.
It is easy for the in-house advocates to co-opt the secretary of defense when he or she comes from an institution like Congress, where rhetoric and appearances trump facts, especially if the words are articulated cleverly or forcefully.
Such superficiality is precisely the profile Senator Chuck Hagel had as a member of the Senate. He was frequently in the news saying something interesting, often against the dogma of the Republican Party or even American politics in general. But, quick, tell yourself something he actually did of consequence in the Senate -- legislation or other important actions, not just words. Draw a blank? So did I, and I was watching up close and personal as a Republican Senate staffer for many of Hagel's twelve years there. Beyond the rhetoric, his record is quite sparse.
At a time when its budget is declining and advocates, backed by generally accepted myths, press hard for their particular hobby horse to be protected while others go begging, the Pentagon needs someone with a demonstrated record as a tough, acutely well informed downsizer or as an accomplished infighter against the powerful bureaucracies that run free under politically oriented secretaries of defense. A talker, not a doer, Senator Hagel, no matter how much I may admire his politics, is not the right person.
This is not to say that the other publically mentioned candidates for the job would be better.
As a denizen of the think tank and policy world, Michelle Flournoy -- as intelligent as she seems to be -- has been operating in a world where soft-policy differences are the stock in trade, not bureaucratic fights down in the weeds over the quality of data on performance or costs. As the chief architect of DOD's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as the Pentagon's under secretary of policy, she showed little interest in or understanding of how the building actually operates at the basic level.
As undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, Ashton Carter has shown little ability to master the bureaucracy. In fact, he let slide far more problems than he has done anything meaningful about. That is all too clearly the case with, for example, the Pentagon's most expensive program ever -- the F-35 -- which remains both unaffordable and a gigantic performance disappointment after four years of Carter's ministrations.
The vast chasm between conventional wisdom and reality on drones, their costs, and what is and is not working at the tactical level is replicated in myriad ways in the secretary of defense job portfolio -- from assault rifles to missile defenses to arms control and especially to questions of war and peace. What we need least is yet another dilettante who specializes in politics of the moment and fancy words.