Commentary

The next secretary of defense should be a woman

In the nearly 75 years since the Department of Defense was created in 1947, Democratic and Republican presidents have appointed 27 people to the top job in the Pentagon, the secretary of defense. However, all the appointees have been males. Consequently there have been increasing calls for former Vice President Biden, who has been declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election to break the glass ceiling and to select the first female secretary of defense.

The ideal candidate for the post would be a person with the background to make the difficult decisions about when and how to use military force, which missions to prioritize and which to deemphasize or eliminate, and is comfortable dealing with the uniform leaders and the chairs of the congressional Armed Service and Defense Appropriations committees on national, as well as local issues, especially when the military leaders or members of Congress might disagree with administration policies.

Arguably, the most effective secretary of defense to date is Melvin Laird, who served under President Nixon to 1969 until 1973. Laird, a WWII veteran and Republican congressman from Wisconsin, helped develop and then convince many skeptical military and congressional leaders to support Nixon’s policies to end the draft, withdraw from Vietnam, support arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and slash defense spending.

Therefore, the individual selected should be someone who has served in our military and in combat, especially since President-elect Biden does not have combat experience, or any military service for that matter. Moreover, the person selected for the post should also have significant political experience and not have ties to the defense industry. Fortunately, there are at least four women who meet these criteria, two democrats and two republicans: Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.

All four of these women legislators have served in combat, have extensive political and legislative experience, at all levels of government, and have not enriched themselves by working directly or indirectly with or for the defense industry and therefore can be objective when dealing with the military industrial complex.

Senator Duckworth would bring a tremendous background to the Pentagon. She has a Ph.D. and is a highly decorated military officer, who served 22 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard, obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring in 2014. In 2004, she deployed to Iraq as a helicopter pilot and after her aircraft was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, she suffered severe combat wounds which caused her to lose both her legs and some mobility in her right arm.

By the end of this session of the Congress, Senator Duckworth, who has served on the Armed Services Committees in both chambers, will have served eight years in Congress, four years in the House and another four in the Senate. In addition, she has served for five years in high level administrative positions in both the Illinois and Department of Veterans Affairs. Finally, she comes from a military family. Her father served in the Army and Marine Corps in both WWII and Vietnam, and her husband is also an Iraq war veteran.

Representative Gabbard, who is retiring after this session of Congress, would also bring a distinguished background to the Pentagon. She is currently a major in the Army National Guard, having served in the Guard since 2003, and has spent 24 months on two combat tours to Iraq, one as an enlisted soldier and one as an officer. Since 2012 she has been a member of Congress, where she has served on the Homeland Security, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs committees. Before that, she served on both the city of Honolulu and state of Hawaii legislative bodies. In Congress, she sponsored and helped pass legislation to improve the military justice system and prevent child abuse and neglect on military bases.

Sen. Joni Ernst would also bring a prominent military and political background to the position. Like her two democratic colleagues, she served in the National Guard for 23 years, retiring in 2015 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, including a one-year deployment to Iraq as a company commander. In 2014, after a decade serving in state and local government, she became the first female combat veteran and first women elected to the U.S. Senate from Iowa, and in 2020 was reelected. During her time in the Senate, she has served on the Armed Services Committee, given the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2015, and in 2016 was interviewed by President Trump as a possible running mate.

In January 2017, she demonstrated her understanding of the challenges facing the Department of Defense when she questioned Trump’s nominee, retired Gen. James Mattis, to be secretary of defense on whether he would pledge to prioritize cutting wasteful spending, stopping sexual assault and retaliation in the military, and enhancing national security missions by leveraging the different abilities of our Guard and Reserve forces.

Sen. Martha McSally would also bring a very distinguished military and political background to the Pentagon. A 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy, she served 22 years in the Air Force, retiring with the rank of colonel. She was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and to command a fighter squadron. Before being appointed to the Senate in 2019 to replace Sen. John Kyl, she served four years in the House of Representatives, but she lost her 2020 Senate bid.

During her time in the Air Force, she successfully sued Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to overturn the U.S. policy that required service women stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear body covering, “abaya,” when traveling off base, and was a victim of sexual assault while serving on active duty. In Congress her committee assignments have included Armed Services.

Obviously these four combat veterans would have to support President-elect Biden’s national security policies, as would anyone appointed to a top national security post. But assuming that, based on their experiences, these four members of Congress would bring as much or more credentials than most of the 27 men who have held that post for the past 73 years. Moreover, President-elect Biden should consider Republican Senators Ernst or McSally. One of Democratic president Bill Clinton’s most effective secretaries of defense was Republican Sen. William Cohen, R-Minn.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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