War Stories

A Return to Professionalism

What Obama’s Pentagon hires say about his presidential style.

President-elect Barack Obama named the Pentagon’s deputy secretaries and undersecretaries today, and, like many of his other appointments, they signal a return to professionalism. It’s not a revolution—except  that, after the last eight years, restoration is revolutionary.

The nominee for deputy secretary of defense—whose job is to manage the Pentagon, not create policy—is William J. Lynn III, who, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, served as the Defense Department’s comptroller and director of its office of program analysis and evaluation.

The undersecretary for policy is Michèle Flournoy, who is now president of the Center for a New American Security—Washington’s most creative military think tank—and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy in the Clinton era.

The new comptroller is Robert Hale, currently executive director of the American Society of Military Comptrollers and a former comptroller of the Air Force, again under Clinton.

In other words, Obama proposes to have an experienced manager managing the Pentagon, an experienced policy wonk running policy, and a comptroller among comptrollers keeping track of the budget.

A similar pattern can be seen in reports earlier this week of special envoys who might be working for Hillary Clinton at the State Department, most notably Dennis Ross on the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke on India and Pakistan.

Some might have problems with those two; they’re controversial, to say the least, and I’m not sure whether the traits that enabled Holbrooke to squeeze Slobodan Milosevic out of Serbia are quite right for, say, mediating the disputes over Kashmir. Ross was Middle East envoy for Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, dousing Israeli-Palestinian brushfires before they erupted into conflagrations—though if the reports are true that his portfolio will include Iran, it’s not clear what special talents he brings to that problem.

Still, the larger point is that both men are seasoned diplomats, well-versed in the art of statecraft. By contrast, George W. Bush assigned no full-time envoy to those parts of the world and barely engaged them in any serious fashion.

In other words, it seems we’re about to have a president whose State Department hires diplomats and expects them to practice diplomacy—a novelty for the 21st century thus far.

The contrasts of Obama’s second-tier appointments in the Pentagon are equally glaring. Bush’s first deputy secretary of defense was Paul Wolfowitz, who—even his neoconservative pals acknowledged—was ill-equipped to manage a large bureaucracy. And his first undersecretary of defense for policy was Douglas Feith, a sort of Wolfowitz mini-me who served with unseemly relish as the main thug of Donald Rumsfeld’s inner circle.

What are all Obama’s professionals going to do? That’s a different question. Every issue they’ll confront has political dimensions, if not a political core—and actual decisions will be made well over their heads.

By all indications, the Obama presidency will be a top-down organization. The president-elect himself has said that he’s hiring smart, experienced people to give him advice, but ultimately their job will be to execute his policies.

There’s something refreshing about the prospect of an intellectually engaged president who absorbs a wide range of views and takes responsibility for his subsequent actions. Still, Obama will be relying on those views as the inputs for his policymaking, and it’s not yet clear how wide-ranging this group’s views will be. Competence doesn’t necessarily yield wisdom. Professionalism can breed narrow-mindedness at least as readily as it sparks creative bursts.

At least he’ll be getting advice and assistance from people who know their assigned areas—and how to carry out policies once they’re formed. That alone marks a dramatic change from much of the last eight years. But what the government does, where the country goes, and how it all works out will ultimately come down to Obama.