There’s been a lot of coverage, much of it somewhat angsty or gossipy, playing out over who President-elect Biden is going to select as his Secretary of Defense. Most of the coverage appears to be in Politico, with Axios, whose founders were also Politico’s founders, getting one scoop in. The reporting largely focuses on former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy. Flournoy founded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), served as President Obama’s first Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and then, when she left government, founded a national security consulting firm with Secretary of State designee Antony Blinken. The news stories include reporting that the Congressional Black Caucus is pushing for the first African American to be appointed Secretary of Defense to GEN (ret) Loyd Austin* and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson being the African Americans under consideration for the position to suggestions that she might not get the nomination because President-elect Biden doesn’t know her well to questions about Flournoy’s clients and work in the private consultancy she founded and ran with Blinken to Flournoy’s charitable work with CARE.
The reporting is somewhat interesting in an inside baseball sort of way if you like that sort of thing. It is also a clear indication that Politico and Axios are looking for anything even remotely controversial within the Biden-Harris transition, which itself would seem to indicate that no one at those publications, as well as others, have learned anything over the last five years.
The reality for whomever will be the next Secretary of Defense, just as the reality for whomever will be appointed to the requiring Senate confirmation principal and deputy positions across the executive branch is going to be triage. What the Department of Defense is going to need, just as every other department, agency, bureau, and office within the executive branch, is someone who both knows how to run a large organization and recognizes that the job is going to be overseeing a rapid assessment of the damage done by Trump’s appointees, or, in some cases, lack of appointees, and that is still being done through the transition. This includes identifying which of Trump’s political appointees have been burrowed into senior civil service positions where they are intended to prevent President-elect Biden and his appointees from making repairs, changing policy, and revising strategy. It will then be necessary to strip these burrowed in political appointees of all responsibility, basically pay them to do nothing, until the long, slow process of removing them from the civil service is worked through so they can be fired. President-elect Biden’s senior appointees and their teams will then have to shore up what can be shored up and repair what can be repaired so that the different executive branch elements can begin to function properly again. They will then need to develop plans to build something better to replace those parts of the executive branch that have been broken beyond repair. And, in the case of the Secretary of Defense, all of this will have to be done will maintaining readiness, conducting all the ongoing missions, being ready and able to conduct missions to deal with events that haven’t even happened yet and that not even the people on the Futures teams can anticipate.
Frankly, whomever is Biden’s first Secretary of Defense is likely to be gone in two years. Not because they aren’t a quality appointment, nor because they aren’t committed to the President-elect’s vision, but because this is going to be an exhausting, thankless job. As I’ve written about here, as well as other places, despite the massive amounts of money we spend on the Department of Defense and the Services, we have a readiness problem. Some of that is personnel related. Too much tail and not enough tooth combined with recruitment issues. Some of it is material related. The Government Accountability Office just released a report that found that the vast majority of military aircraft have fallen short on readiness over the past decade. This lines up with what Lt Gen (ret) Deptula stated in January 2017:
The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has been at war not just since 9/11, but since 1991. After 25 years of continuous combat operations, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top lines, have made the USAF the oldest, smallest, and least ready it has ever been in its history. The average USAF aircraft age is 27 years—the youngest B-52 is over 50 years old. Going into Operation Desert Storm, the USAF had over 530,000 active duty personnel, today that number is 320,000—40 percent less, and the USAF has almost 60 percent fewer combat fighter squadrons today (55) than it did during the first Gulf War in 1991 (134). Today, over 50 percent of USAF forces are not sufficiently ready for a high-end fight against near-peer capabilities posed by China or Russia.
Despite spending over $700 billion a year on the Department of Defense and the Services, we are, to use the colloquialism, out of Schlitz. While the Budget Control Act, d/b/a The Sequester, was waived every year for the DOD and the Services, the reality is that it was used to justify all sorts of bizarre decisions not to spend money. I cannot tell you how many DOD and Service civil service positions were allowed to go unfilled when people retired, in fact when people were incentivized to take early retirement, in order to meet budgetary targets resulting from the sequester, even though the sequester was waived every year. I cannot tell you how much of this work was pushed to the contract side and then those contracts were never finalized – start work orders never issued – because of the time it takes to run through the contracting process either providing contracting officers with excuses to claw back money because it hadn’t been spent promptly or because the start work orders got pushed back until the contract awards conflicted with the 80/20 rule for when money has to be spent by or clawed back. And more contract awards than ever are now being contested, and in some cases litigated, by the companies that lose the bid, which further compounds the problem.
And if you think the Department of Defense has it bad, let me tell you about the Department of State and USAID. Secretary of State designee Blinken is inheriting a pair of agencies that have been gutted. Whomever is named to be the next Attorney General has a morale and professionalization issue that is going to be hard to address at the Department of Justice and the FBI. The DNI nominee and, eventually, the Director of Central Intelligence nominee have similar problems as whomever will be the next Attorney General. Secretary of the Treasury designee Yellen is going to have a huge task in cleaning up the mess made by Mnuchin, as will whomever is nominated to take over at Commerce, Interior, HHS, Agriculture, etc.
At the end of the day what is going to matter is who President-elect Biden is comfortable with and how they get along with their key counterparts. For instance, how the Secretary of Defense gets along with the Secretary of State** and the National Security Advisor. Or how the Secretary of the Treasury gets on with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. The first two years of the next four years is going to be a massive undertaking of assessing what condition the executive branch is in, what can be quickly fixed, what can be patched while longer term repairs are planned and undertaken, and what can’t be repaired and has to be replaced with something new.
Build back better isn’t a campaign slogan, a motto, or a mission statement. It is a recognition of a very grim reality. A grim reality that will wear down even the best of people.
* Full disclosure: I know GEN (ret) Austin, but not well. I met him in Iraq in 2008 when he was the Commanding General of 10th Mountain Division. The brigade combat team my team was assigned to had been split off from the rest of 1st Armored Division in Multi-National Division North and sent south and east of Baghdad to Multi-National Division Central. 10th Mountain Division fortunately took over Multi-National Division Central two months into our deployment. I met GEN Austin when he came to our FOB as part of his initial battlefield circulation. I was introduced to him, he spoke to me for about 90 seconds, and my part of his briefing lasted about two minutes tops. I also provided support to him when he was the Commanding General of CENTCOM via his Command Sergeant Major, who was my point of contact in the CENTCOM command group.
** Given that Michelle Flournoy and Antony Blinken are friends and have been working together – inside and outside of government – and are co-owners of a national security consultancy in DC, I expect that this will have some bearing on the final decisions as to who will be chosen to become the next Secretary of Defense. I don’t know Flournoy, but in many ways she is an almost perfect example of the right make, model, and type you’d want to be the Secretary of Defense right now. I don’t know if that and her relationship with Blinken will be enough and I’m sure whomever President-elect Biden selects will be an exemplary candidate.