Over at his place, Kevin Drum brought up yesterday's national security team shuffle and asks a really, really great question. First, here's the Slate piece by Fred Kaplan that got him thinking about it:
What's glaringly obvious about this list is that [...] it's a game of musical chairs. No fresh talent has been brought into the circle. And one reason for this is that the bench of fresh major-league talent is remarkably thin.
There are plenty of smart, capable analysts and bureaucrats in the Pentagon's second tier or in the think-tank community—but very few, arguably none, who possess the worldliness, gravitas, intramural hard-headedness, and credibility on Capitol Hill that a president, especially a Democratic president, would like to have in a defense secretary during a time of two wars and ferocious budget fights....In the past few weeks, I've asked a couple dozen veteran observers—officials, analysts, Hill staffers, other reporters—who they think would be a suitable replacement, from either party's roster. Nobody could think of anybody. This in itself is a bit disturbing.
And here's Kevin's response:
Yes, that is disturbing. If it's true, that is...Is it really true that the bench of big-league talent in the top tier of the national security world is as thin as all that? And if it is, why?
Well, it is and it isn't, I think. The first, most important point here is the one that Kevin also makes in his post: You often don't know who the superstars are until you've plucked them from the bench and plopped 'em in the superstar's chair. Hey, we always knew Roy Halladay was a fine pitcher, but who really knew he had a playoff no-hitter in him when he was with the Toronto also-ran Blue Jays? Likewise with Robert Gates: No stranger to the Beltway, sure. But who really thought, back in 2006—at a time when we'd have been happy to replace Don Rumsfeld with a pygmy moth, or a broken stairclimber, or lichens—who really thought so many people five years later would be calling Gates a defense secretary for the ages? That's how these things tumble. You just never know.
But beyond that, Kevin and Kaplan are sort of right that there's a leadership gap in left- (and right-) leaning foreign and military policymaking. They seem to suggest it's chiefly a question of charisma and platform. But it's more a question of national security orientation. For the past five or six years, the military, the diplomatic corps, and the Dem think-tankers focused on issues like fighting a better war on terror than conservatives (leaving Iraq, focusing on Af/Pak, repairing multilateralism and soft power). They’ve been in step with the American public in one respect: All agree that neoconservativism sucked as a NATSEC strategy.