Our National Security Farm Team Problem

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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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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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