Don't Look to the Senate for the National Security Leadership

The U.S. Senate is not where we typically find the best leadership for the national security and foreign policy departments of the executive branch of our government.

By + More
In this photo from Dec. 20, 2012, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., leads a hearing on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
In this photo from Dec. 20, 2012, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., leads a hearing on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

For sure, one question that neither of the Senator nominees (Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for State and former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for Defense) will be asked—at their confirmation hearings—is: "Senator, do you think that the work ethic we have here in the Senate—or more accurately, the work ethic we don't have here in the Senate—will detract from your ability to actually perform your duties as Secretary of State/Defense? In other words do you have any idea what it's like to work 12-16 hour days and be on call 24/7?"

Having worked directly for a couple of Secretaries of Defense, and also for the Senate Intelligence Committee, I've had a unique opportunity to observe—first hand— the work ethic, both in the Senate and in our national security departments. In a word, there is a huge disparity between them that few seem to know about, or even acknowledge.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

First of all, let's "level the field" a bit with some "ground truth" realities of Washington bureaucratic politics:

  • During wartime we seem to know instinctively that we need "better people" at Defense and State, and that generally happens, whether it's a "real" consideration for their selection or not, but it seems to be an unsaid requirement. The two best examples I know of—first hand—were Caspar Weinberger (yes, the Cold War was a war) and Donald Rumsfeld. Both of these thoughtful men put in inordinate and intense hours and required it from their top people, whom they selected primarily because of their policy expertise and work ethic. In fact, I've never known anyone who worked any harder at any job.
    • During periods of relative peace, for example the Bill Clinton administration (thanks primarily to Ronald Reagan winning the Cold War, and the resulting "implosion" of the Soviet Union) the Defense Department bureaucracy tends to "overwhelm" the incumbent secretary, as the military services and the Joint Chief's assume inordinate bureaucratic and programmatic power. In fact, do we even remember who was Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration? There were three, and the last was a former Senator who isn't remembered for much—except being "captured" by the Chiefs.
      • The Senate is made up of "100 kings," each with a state political fiefdom, but who, individually, have little to do with much of anything. And they have, at most, small staffs tending to the mostly personal and constituent needs of the senator. My experience was that there were about 10 senators who actually "ran" the Senate. For example, the late senator Ted Kennedy was one of these, and he had consummate legislative skills, a very competent staff and a highly developed work ethic. Former senator Jon Kyl was another—a very thoughtful man with a deep knowledge and understanding of even the most esoteric national security and foreign policy issues. Many or most of the rest of them, frankly, didn't do much except blab for the camera, travel a lot, and run for re-election every six years. In sum, and not surprisingly, most Senators are focused primarily on advancing their own political careers. So, we will find out, almost immediately, which category Kerry and Hagel are in—but the odds are stacked against either of them being a "hard worker".
        • Staffs tell a lot about a person. If these two nominees bring their former Senate staffers with them for high-level appointments in their respective departments, there is typically a huge "learning curve" associated with it. This because too many Senate "personal" staffers are —quite frankly—kids who are in way over their head doing anything except being door keepers or paper pushers for their senator. There are exceptions to this, of course, but most are associated with the staff on committees like  Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence. Even then, however, there are huge differences in being a committee staff subject matter expert and running an organization or agency that's actually responsible for something—this requires consummate leadership skills and not just paper pushng.  Again, we'll soon know what we have at these two key departments in the way of their key staff—i.e., where they came from and where they end up.
          • How much (or little) time a secretary of state or defense spends away from home has a direct bearing on how effective they are as the CEO of their department. The ones who are out of town a lot tend to allow the entrenched departmental bureaucracies to run the show. And, by the way, both State and Defense have huge professional bureaucracies that like nothing better than a secretary who is gone a lot, and one who is more concerned with photo ops than actually running the department. In this respect, I can only—and fondly—remember how Secretary Rumsfeld got the attention of the entrenched bureaucracies during the first few months of his leadership in 2001. While this was traumatic for many of them—and even career-ending for a few—it was clear that Rumsfeld would be running the show at defense— and he certainly did.
          • [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

            So, will Kerry and Hagel actually be up to the job they have been nominated for?

            This depends on the kind of job they intend to do: If they travel a lot, bring their door keepers, paper pushers, and personal staff with them; or, if they were not one of the 10 percent who actually ran the Senate, we shouldn't expect much —except public affairs type speeches and a series of photo ops from around the world.

            [Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Chuck Hagel Be Confirmed as Secretary of Defense?]

            Why am I so pessimistic? For a number of reasons, the Senate is not where we typically find the best leadership for the national security and foreign policy departments of the executive branch of our government. In other words, it's more often like this: "I now have my own airplane and go anywhere I want."

            • Read Stephen Hayes: U.S. Must Recognize Changing World Economy
            • Read Leslie Pitterson: Rand Paul Tailoring His Foreign Policy Views for a 2016 Run
            • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.