Where Are the National Security Superstars?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Over at his place, Kevin Drum brought up yesterday’s national security team shuffle and asks a really, really great question. First, here’s the Slate piece by Fred Kaplan that got him thinking about it:

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.

And here’s Kevin’s response:

Yes, that is disturbing. If it’s true, that is…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?

Well, it is and it isn’t, I think. The first, most important point here is the one that Kevin also makes in his post: You often don’t know who the superstars are until you’ve plucked them from the bench and plopped ’em in the superstar’s chair. Hey, we always knew Roy Halladay was a fine pitcher, but who really knew he had a playoff no-hitter in him when he was with the Toronto also-ran Blue Jays? Likewise with Robert Gates: No stranger to the Beltway, sure. But who really thought, back in 2006—at a time when we’d have been happy to replace Don Rumsfeld with a pygmy moth, or a broken stairclimber, or lichens—who really thought so many people five years later would be calling Gates a defense secretary for the ages? That’s how these things tumble. You just never know.

But beyond that, Kevin and Kaplan are sort of right that there’s a leadership gap in left- (and right-) leaning foreign and military policymaking. They seem to suggest it’s chiefly a question of charisma and platform. But it’s more a question of national security orientation. For the past five or six years, the military, the diplomatic corps, and the Dem think-tankers focused on issues like fighting a better war on terror than conservatives (leaving Iraq, focusing on Af/Pak, repairing multilateralism and soft power). They’ve been in step with the American public in one respect: All agree that neoconservativism sucked as a NATSEC strategy.

But while the Democratic-leaning NATSEC luminaries abandoned neoconservatism for liberal and constructivist approaches to foreign policy, the American public has abandoned neoconservatism for isolationism. They don’t really want a foreign policy (or, they don’t think that they do), because they equate foreign policy with economic ruin, angry foreigners, and flag-draped coffins. They want the US to fix its own house before fixing the world’s. They want economic recovery. No amount of Churchillian candor and charisma is going to turn back that trend by itself.

Hence what you’re seeing play out in DC: The new national security team is talking more about spending, sustainable energy, and greening than about the order of battle in Asia or the Middle East. A budget-savvy bureaucrat (and a good one, mind you) will run the DOD. Adm. Mullen has called the US’s economic situation its biggest national security threat. A bevy of junior officers are producing memos on how the military should be smaller, do less, and take a back seat to the diplomats. This in itself is a revolutionary phenomenon in our military and diplomatic bureaucracy. But it’s not sexy political messaging, and it’s the province of smart people who aren’t necessarily gifted politicians or charismatic personalities. For now, we are entering a technocratic cycle of leadership in the left-leaning national security community.

The other thing to point out, though, is that this is a temporary (and particularly ill-timed) vacuum. The long war—and the long lull in real Democratic leadership in Washington—has produced a serious interest in international and security affairs among recent grads. There are plenty of think tanks like the Center for a New American Security; political training programs like the Truman National Security Project; and young vets of the military, academia, State, USAID, and the Peace Corps who fill the marketplace of ideas today. They’re the next generation of Tony Lakes, Dick Holbrookes, and David Petraeuses on the one hand, and Sam Nunns, Gary Harts, and Bob Grahams on the other. And if Congress ever approves that damned national service academy, there’ll be a whole lot more of them.

In any case, my guess is that after another election cycle or two, after the economy’s truly stabilized, and after the wars have really come to a sort of conclusion, you’re going to see more of that young generation in front of Congress and the cameras, leading the country to a new NATSEC strategy. Until then, get ready for the riveting world of defense acquisitions actuarials.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.