"Mr. Obama reached deeper into the Washington establishment — but in a bipartisan way — and asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stay on..."
December 1, 2008
The New York Times
The New York Times praise for President-Elect Obama’s national security team may be protesting too much. After weeks of speculation, President-Elect has succeeding in persuading a once recalcitrant Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense. Retaining Gates had been the advice of many observers and accomplishing this is heralded as a positive sign for future national security policymaking going forward. However, the move is not so much bipartisan as much as it adds to the notion that defense and national security is indeed partisan, specifically Republican, territory. If Gates departs as planned within one year of Obama’s inauguration, no Democrat will have served as secretary of defense since January 1997, when Republican William Cohen assumed the post in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet during his second term.
In the past fifty-six years, Republicans have held the secretary of defense post for almost forty-seven of them (DATA SET). Since 1969 and rise of the GOP as the dominant political party, Republicans have held the secretary of defense post for almost thirty-two years – nearly four years longer than they held the presidency. It must be very frustrating to sit on that Democratic defense team bench.
While tracing back to 1953 amplifies the dominance of Republicans in the post, selecting the year 1969 is a more appropriate demarcation because the year denotes when serious divisions over defense matters emerged as the Cold War bipartisan consensus on foreign policy fell apart.
When the Department of Defense was established as part of the National Security Act of 19471, the step was taken as a universal recognition that existing US institutions needed to be modernized if the nation was lead the free world in its confrontation with the Soviet Union. In combination with the Marshall Plan, aid to anti-communist governments in Greece and Turkey, the establishment of the Atlantic Alliance, the Act comprised a key component of bipartisan efforts to organize the US government for its role as a superpower.
To secure these achievements, Democratic President Harry S. Truman worked closely with Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. While Vandenberg had been a staunch foe of Democratic domestic programs and had originally espoused isolationism, he became a stalwart internationalist and provided critical partisan support to Truman’s efforts at a time when sizable Republican opposition to involvement overseas still existed. From then on, bipartisanship on foreign affairs became the norm. Political leaders in both parties routinely supported the principles of anti-Soviet containment and continuity was achieved in the presidency, even when it changed party hands.
However, by the late 1960s, cracks in the consensus began to emerge. The Republican Party had succeeded in marginalizing isolationists and extremists like the Birchers, but conservatives exemplified by Sen. Barry Goldwater assumed control of the party and championed a more nationalistic and aggressive posture vis-à-vis the communist bloc. In the 1964 campaign, Goldwater criticized the Democratic Johnson Administration policy in Southeast Asia for its lack of purpose, but the caricature of him as a warmonger undermined his critique. Nevertheless, a continuing theme of conservative Republican campaigns would be the need for a strong defense.
In 1968, the Democratic Party split over the Vietnam War and eventually evolved in the opposite direction. During the primaries, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had rallied liberals and antiwar factions and was poised to win the nomination. However, his tragic assassination prevented this outcome and the subsequent convention turmoil only showcased the increasingly bitter divisions within the party. Eventual nominee, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, attempted to straddle the pro- and anti-war factions, but the images of the riots at the Chicago Convention and the defection of George Wallace Democrats resulted in a victory for Republican Richard Nixon.
The bitterness on the part of liberal and antiwar activists spurred them to liberalize party primary rules. Vehemently opposed to Nixon’s continuation of the war in Southeast Asia, liberals rallied to antiwar nominee Sen. George McGovern and promised a more accommodationist foreign policy. McGovern lost in a massive landslide but the liberal sentiment endured in the 1976 Democratic primary race. In that primary race, staunch anti-communist and pro-defense Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson failed to make any headway against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who promised a foreign policy based on support for human rights and later famously concluded America had been freed of its “inordinate fear of communism.”
During Carter’s presidency and the coinciding debacles in Afghanistan and Iran, leading foreign policy and national security thinkers in the party began their migration to the Republican Party, becoming the famous “neo-conservatives” who used their estimable intellectual firepower to skewer Democratic policies and support Republican alternatives. The consequence was a Democratic Party that was home to liberal thinking on foreign policy and defense matters -- favoring the accommodation of the Soviet Union, lower defense expenditures, and reduction in aid to anti-communist movements around the world. Following Republican Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the GOP held onto the presidency (and thus the secretary of defense post) for the next twelve years, until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
This long tenure further undermined the credibility of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and defense matters. At the same time, the period bolstered the hands-on experience of conservatives working on military affairs while diminishing that of liberals. Furthermore, with a close working relationship came greater political affinity. This connection became more pronounced after George H.W. Bush, who presided over the enormously successful Persian Gulf War, was succeeded by Bill Clinton, who had dodged the draft and had infamously terrible relations with the military.
President Clinton committed a major misstep at the outset with his position on homosexuals in the military. After that episode, his choice for secretary of defense, former House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin, well-versed but disorganized, proved to be a poor fit to oversee a military undergoing a tremendous down from Cold War levels. Aspin had a short tenure and was succeeded by the capable but unremarkable William Perry. Upon winning re-election, President Clinton turned to Republican William Cohen, also knowledgeable but not necessarily an expert in military affairs.
By 2000, US military members were widely perceived as favoring the Republican Party, an affiliation which only grew. According to Peter Holm, a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the gap between service-members who identified with the Republican and Democratic Party varied during the course of the Bush Administration, but by the end of 2007, the weighted results found Republicans making up 44% of the military population, as compared to 17% calling themselves Democrats. Even after the setbacks in Iraq, considerable support for Republicans remained in the military; the 2008 Military Times newspaper polls indicated 68% of currently serving military respondents favored John McCain for president, while only 23% supported for Barack Obama.
A key argument for Obama to retain Gates center on the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; accordingly, because of these demands, Obama should keep Gates to ensure continuity.
However, the need for stability in the post amidst war is not imperative. When the White House changed hands in 1969, the Vietnam War continued to rage and Nixon's selection, Melvin Laird, ably stepped in after LBJ's Clark Clifford and accomplished a great deal.
Laird’s main achievements include disengagement from Vietnam, reviving civil-military relations, and sustaining readiness during the trauma of Vietnam. Furthermore, one key accomplishment resonates to this day – the establishment of the all-volunteer force and coinciding decisions as to how the nation would mobilize for war.
The experience of the Vietnam War led decision-makers to end the draft and move to an all-volunteer force. Equally important, decision-makers concurred with recommendations to utilize the reserves rather than draft civilians. The shift constituted the first step toward established the “operational reserve.” While reliance on volunteers and the reserve would ensure higher quality service-members and enhanced readiness, Laird’s total force concept also meant decision-makers would have to exercise greater care when making the decision to launch a war, since any large military undertaking would require substantial reserve contributions, especially after the post-Cold War drawdown.
Accordingly, the drawn out experience in Iraq placed attention on the manner in which the Bush Administration utilized the armed forces, specifically the reserves. Consequently, considerable attention is now being placed on reforming mobilization statues and regulations, the appropriate size and constitution of the active force, and the kind of warfare the US military should be prepared to fight.
Secretary Gates will be invariably hedged in by other Democratic appointees (indeed long-serving Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England has already announced his intent to resign in January) and succeeded by an estimable Democrat, such as former secretary of the navy Richard Danzig, but his retention underscores the dearth of credibility on the part of Democrats in the field of defense, even after Bush-Rumsfeld.
Of course, voters did elect Barack Obama, a former community organizer with no exposure to the military whatsoever, over John McCain, a Vietnam War hero and respected voice on national security affairs, so…
1 The Department of Defense was originally titled the National Military Establishment (NME); the name was changed when the Act was amended in 1949.
Wikipedia; United States Secretary of Defense
Department of Defense, “Histories of the Secretaries of Defense”