The Benefits of a Bipartisan War Cabinet

Having a defense secretary from the other party helps diffuse partisan bickering over military matters.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and President Barack Obama.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and President Barack Obama.

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As President Obama digests the negative headlines generated by Bob Gates' controversial new memoir, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," he might be ruing the day he decided to retain a Republican as defense secretary. Washington Post columnist Al Kamen certainly thinks so. Gates' memoir, Kamen insists, offers a cautionary warning to all future presidents: "Never, ever appoint someone to a senior post that will be his or her last job in government," especially if that person is from the other political party.

Perhaps. But presidents, especially war presidents, must also construct bipartisan coalitions behind their national-security policies. And nothing better helps to foster such coalitions than a key representative from the opposing party in the top defense job.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Just take a look at the historical record. Although there were numerous reasons why the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq Wars sparked domestic opposition, the presence of a partisan, or divisive, defense secretary quickly made matters much worse.

In 1950, Louis Johnson became the target of Republican attacks for the initial defeats in Korea. In the mid-1960s, it was the turn of Robert McNamara to face Republican ire, as he became the political target for the stalemate in Vietnam. And who can forget how Democrats lambasted Donald Rumsfeld, as his abrasive press conference replies became dangerously detached from reality.

The partisan abuse heaped on these three defense secretaries was especially significant because they headed the department responsible for handling the most heart-rending and sensitive dimension of waging war: reporting casualties to both relatives and the public.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

When these three men became ensnared in bitter political controversies about the causes and course of their wars, the Defense Department's reporting of casualties soon faced intense partisan scrutiny. In both the 1950s and the 1960s, Republicans challenged the veracity of casualty totals announced by Johnson's and McNamara's Pentagon. In 2005, congressional Democrats likewise charged that Rumsfeld's departmental casualty figures were "inaccurate by several multiples."

By contrast, when presidents have picked a defense chief from the other party, they have depoliticized this tragic aspect of war making. As in so many areas of leadership, President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, led the way. His appointment, in 1940, of Henry Stimson as secretary of war, a Republican who had filled the same position for Republican President William Howard Taft, ensured that the roughly 300,000 U.S. combat deaths in World War II rarely were used as a political point in unseemly partisan disputes.

In 2009, Obama needed Gates to perform a similar role. And while the president may now be taking a political hit for this appointment, his current problem pales next to the political cover Gates provided five years ago, during the crucial period when Obama was making his Afghan policy choices – a period, it is important to remember, when public support for this war had dipped below 40 percent.