Our National Security Farm Team Problem


Yesterday President Obama announced a reshuffling of his national security portfolio, moving Leon Panetta from CIA to Defense, Gen. David Petraeus from Afghanistan to the CIA, Gen. John Allen from Centcom to Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker from retirement to active duty as ambassador to Kabul. Fred Kaplan says “it’s hard to imagine a shrewder set of moves, both politically and substantively.” And maybe so. But then there’s this:

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.

Yes, that is disturbing. If it’s true, that is. And it might not be: it’s common to think of second stringers as perpetually second stringers until you actually promote one of them. Then all that gravitas you thought was missing is suddenly there. That might be all that’s going on here.

Still, this would be an interesting topic to hear from other national security folks about. 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?

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