Despite the increasing hyper-partisanship over the once politically neutral topic of national security, Mieke Eoyang contends there are still analysts and lawmakers out there who want to engage in pragmatic discussions about the country’s defense.
There is a “tremendously receptive” audience in Washington and around the country that’s “hungry” for more moderate stances on national security matters, according to Eoyang, director of Third Way’s National security Program.
“People are looking for those positions,” she added. “They are concerned about the polarization in national security, in a space where it hasn’t been before.”
The way to rebuff the political sniping “is not by me going on Fox News ... moderate shouting doesn’t really help,” she said. The better course is to work with lawmakers and influencers and lead them to sensible approaches to problems.
Eoyang’s entrance into the defense sector “was a little bit of a fluke.” After high school she interned for former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), the first woman to serve on House Armed Services Committee. She returned after college when Schroeder’s office offered to hire her as a staffer overseeing the committee’s portfolio, despite her desire to work on civil rights issues.
Once Eoyang started, she soon found herself hooked.
“The military’s really a microcosm of society, and every issue you face in the broader domestic context, you face with the military,” she said. “Then on top of that you get all the national security issues, all the foreign policy issues.”
After Schroeder retired, Eoyang went to work for the Armed Services panel, handling the military personnel portfolio. Eventually she joined the staff of former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as defense policy adviser, serving there from 2003 to 2007.
She makes light of being a minority female in a historically male-dominated policy area.
“Everyone remembers who I am in meetings,” she said. “And I have a terrible time remembering them because they’re all white guys with the same haircut, wearing the same outfit, with the same six names.”
She has faced adversity. Once, when accompanying a congressional delegation to Asia, the admiral showing lawmakers around assumed she was a translator.
“If you’re not aggressive about saying who I am and this is what I do, people make assumptions about you,” Eoyang said.
She stressed that there are many women in Washington with strong national security credentials, such as Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of Defense for policy and now heads the Center for a New American Security, an organization Flournoy co-founded.
Eoyang also pointed to Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and chief executive of the New American Foundation, who served as the U.S. State Department’s director of policy planning.
However, the trend is “not reflected in the voices the media goes to to talk about national security,” she said, which impacts who Americans think of as credible voices on the topic. She adds that it “wouldn’t hurt” for the country to one day have a female president with such a background.
Now the head of Third Way’s national security effort, Eoyang gets to take advantage of the center-left think tank’s interesting interior decorating choices, such as office paint that allows staffers to write with markers on the walls.
“Many of our walls are just giant whiteboards,” she said. “They’re great for brainstorming or for sketching out a paper or policy,” such as her next study on National Security Agency surveillance.
Her moderate approach is in line with Third Way’s centrist take on issues. Former President Clinton and United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, two prominent proponents of the centrist approach and inspirations to the think tank, often couched their views on political compromise as a “third way” to governing.
A 20-year veteran of defense issues, Eoyang says she has seen enough to know that Pentagon spending goes in cycles.
“What I see now is an environment much like when I started, which is that there is no overriding security imperative that drives you to really high spending,” she said. “We are past the post-9/11 period and so people are thinking about defense in context to other spending, not just as something that is necessary for the defense of the nation.”
Eoyang said what makes this latest phase of defense spending different from others is the partisan bickering over the federal budget, which led to the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that threaten to take a huge bite out of the Pentagon next fiscal year.
The “lack of budget process certainty” and “playing brinkmanship politics really undermines the security of the nation and our ability to plan,” Eoyang said.
She admits that some of today’s budget pressures, such as the ballooning costs of military benefits on compensation and healthcare, originate from decisions she and other staffers made in the 1990s in rolling back certain budget controls without thinking through the long-term budget implications.
Eoyang said House and Senate lawmakers will be forced to find efficiencies and make cuts to the Defense Department budget next year, but warned against reductions “that are penny-wise and pound foolish,” including slashing research and development funding that would “sacrifice the future for the present.”
She also said Congress should not make cuts just to meet a flat figure goal.
“Numeric benchmarks lead you to a bad outcome for security,” she said.
In addition to a defense spending cycle, Eoyang said there are periods in which national security headlines dominate the news.
The Obama administration has been raked over the coals in recent months by members of both parties on a string of national security matters, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea and threats against Ukraine, the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and Syria, and the prisoner exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders.
Eoyang likened it to the period between 2004 and 2007, when Kennedy, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, seemed to face almost daily developments out of Iraq, including the torture and abuse scandal of Abu Ghraib and the debate over providing armored vehicles to soldiers on the ground.
“There were times when the chief of staff ... would send out emails to the rest of the staff saying ‘hold everything else back because we’re just doing armed services for the foreseeable future,’ ” Eoyang said.
“It’s the Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ I would rather this than be bored,” she added. “I don’t know if the rest of the nation feels that way but, for me, it’s pretty good.”