Pentagon insiders say there are growing signs that defense secretary Robert Gates will make good on his plan to depart public service this year. President Obama will probably make one more push to convince Gates to stay on through the 2012 presidential elections, but Gates has already served much longer than he intended when he took the job in 2006, and retirement beckons. So the search is on for a successor.
Personally, I think Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the best choice, but the former senator shows little interest in running the Pentagon. Some people around Gates seem to favor CIA director Leon Panetta for the job, but he’s in his seventies now and he likes being able to fly home to California for the weekend — a luxury he would have to forgo as defense secretary. Apparently Navy secretary Ray Mabus and former deputy defense secretary John Hamre have been to the White House for discussions, but it isn’t clear either of them could insulate Obama from partisan attacks over national security the way Gates has. That’s doubly true of other prospective internal candidates like acquisition chief Ashton Carter, a protégé of former defense secretary William Perry.
What the White House really needs is another Gates — somebody with impeccable defense credentials who is above politics. There seems to be only one public figure who fits that description: Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman disclosed last month that he will not seek re-election to the Senate in 2012, apparently signaling the end of a political career that began when he ran for the state senate in Connecticut as an antiwar candidate in 1970 (with help from fellow Yale law student Bill Clinton). Lieberman is that rarest of political commodities, a politician who has successfully mixed progressive domestic priorities with strong, consistent support for national defense. According to the Almanac of American Politics, it’s possible that without his backing, the Gulf War resolution would not have passed in 1991. He has been a vigorous supporter of the global war on terror, chairing the Senate’s homeland security committee and serving on the armed services committee.
As everyone in Washington knows, Joe Lieberman has a political problem: he supported his old friend John McCain in the 2008 presidential race against Barack Obama. But that move only came after his state Democratic Party abandoned him over his support for the Iraq war in the 2006 primary, a setback from which Lieberman recovered to win re-election as an independent. Lieberman’s willingness to nonetheless caucus with Senate Democrats gave them a working majority in the upper chamber, but he nearly lost his committee chairmanship after he campaigned for candidate McCain. Some people in the White House political operation will never forgive him for his dismissive comments about Obama during the campaign.
Ironically, though, it is precisely that maverick streak that now puts Lieberman in position to be a plausible successor to Gates at the Pentagon. He may have been Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential race, but he is first and foremost a man of principle. He would never compromise his support for a strong national defense in order to curry favor with the White House. How many of the other candidates for the defense secretary’s job can say that? And because of his track record of principled leadership, Lieberman is well positioned to protect the President from any Republican attacks over defense policies — just as Gates has done during the first two years of Obama’s tenure.
Picking Senator Lieberman to run the Pentagon would send a strong signal that the interests of warfighters will be well represented in deficit reduction deliberations. His grasp of regional security issues is unsurpassed in the Senate. His support of Israel has been unwavering. So maybe Mr. Obama ought to do what Bill Clinton did during his second term, and select as his next defense secretary a leader who can work closely with members of the opposition party on security issues. A leader like Joe Lieberman.
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