With James Mattis’s departure from Department of Defense, the search is underway for a replacement. To that end, the first of what will be several trial balloons has been floated.
Jim Webb, the iconoclastic former Democratic senator from Virginia who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, is under consideration for Defense secretary, according to an administration official with knowledge of the process.
Webb would be an eye-opening choice as a member of the opposing party who briefly ran for president in 2015.
But his views on foreign policy and military affairs align with President Donald Trump in key respects. For example, he ran for the Senate in 2006 on a platform to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, even campaigning while wearing his Marine son’s combat boots.
Whether he gets the nomination “really depends on how the military views him, how the career people view him, what his view are of Syria and Afghanistan and any number of issues,” said the official, who added that a number of candidates exist.
Dear Lord, with 330 or so million people to choose from is this the best they can come up with in terms of an exciting candidate?
Superficially, Webb has a lot of the same populist views as Trump. He does seem aligned with Trump on winding down the US presence in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Some guys I know and respect think he’d be a great choice.
“Jim Webb would be a smart choice for secretary of Defense,” Jim Hanson, president of the Security Studies Group, which advises the administration, told me on Thursday. “He is also a Democrat—maybe the last actual conservative Democrat in public life—and believes in a strong military, used only when the need is unmistakable and the mission is crystal clear. Our enemies would know he is not a man to be trifled with; as we have seen, that force of personality and reputation is a factor in creating deterrence.”
Beyond the obvious point, I don’t know why any Republican administration would give Department of Defense to a Democrat, I think the people pushing Webb are missing three critical factors.
First, the alignment of Webb and Trump on troop withdrawal is serendipitous and not based on a common outlook. Webb is opposed to the use of military force even when what I’d consider critical US security interests are at stake.
He had questioned the Reagan administration’s decision place Kuwaiti oil tankers under American protection in the xTC Persian Gulf, believing the U.S. was unwisely tilting toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and warned that American military involvement in the gulf could turn into a quagmire, much like Vietnam.
He continued his opposition even after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the U.S. mililtary buildup that preceded the Persian Gulf War commenced. On Jan. 12, 1991, the day the Senate debated whether to authorize the use of force in the Gulf, he addressed a small anti-war gathering of military families, reducing abstractions to flesh and blood. “You don’t use force, you send people,” he declared. “You send young people who have dreams, who want a future.”
President Bush “has been maneuvering the nation toward war for several months,” he said. Bush fought with distinction in World War II, said Webb, “but with all due respect none of his children served in Vietnam.”
While Trump is in favor of SOME withdrawals, I don’t sense any particular reluctance on his part to pull the trigger on a fresh deployment somewhere else…like Venezuela. Webb might be good fit for a Rand Paul administration which would, at least initially, be fairly anti-intervention. If that happens then he could count on losing his Secretary Defense and, unlike Mattis, he’d lose one who wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.
The second point is that he wasn’t a terribly effective Navy Secretary (no surprising as novelists don’t tend to have a lot of what it takes to lead and motivate large organizations). As Ronald Reagan said in his diary about Webb’s resignation, “I don’t think Navy was sorry to see him go.”
And for a man who values personal loyalty, Webb would be a horrible choice. Webb had pushed for a 600-ship Navy. Budget and manpower realities said that the Navy had to lose ships. Webb resigned. This is not principle, this is a huff.
His Walter-Sobchak-like fixation on making everything about Vietnam is tiring, passe, unhelpful, and his constant resorting to chickenhawking anyone who questions him makes one wonder just how long someone who essentially called George W. Bush a draft dodger because he served in the Air Guard could work for a guy who received multiple draft exemptions.
In short, there is nothing in Webb’s background, record, or personality that indicates he’d be much of an asset as Secretary of Defense. But, if the administration is intent on some kind of “meta’ message by grabbing a former Democrat senator and war hero…much as he did with choosing Mattis as SecDef…then this may come to pass and we can bet Trump will sorely regret his decision.
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