Honor those who sacrificed their all — and our living veterans
America desperately needs a confirmed defense secretary
The United States confronts the most dangerous and dynamic array of threats that we have seen in our lifetimes, yet our armed forces lack a confirmed secretary of the Defense Department. The American people, including our men and women in uniform, deserve better. The coming months will bring a host of major national security events, including the management of nuclear treaty violations by Russia, the withdrawal of our troops from Syria, potential adjustments in Afghanistan, ongoing talks with North Korea over its nuclear program, the management of tensions in the South China Sea, a spate of meetings with our allies, the launch of a Space Force, and the modernization of the United States nuclear triad.
Topping it off will be a highly consequential debate over defense spending that will determine whether the United States military receives sufficient resources to implement the national defense strategy, restore American military supremacy, and deter conflict with Russia and China. Both our allies and our adversaries will be straining to ascertain our commitment to various defense treaties as well as our willingness to challenge the ever aggressive expansionism of Russia and China. They will also look at our willingness to assist our neighbors in South America, should the turmoil in Venezuela start to wreak even greater regional havoc. They will of course pay special attention to our determination to invest appropriately in our armed forces still trying to recover from years of insufficient funding.
A key signal to those watching our every move, and to our own public and those serving in the military, is clearly the selection of a permanent defense secretary. The selection of a defense secretary says a great deal about the agenda of the president and how he intends to implement it. The nomination also says a lot about how the president envisions the role of military affairs in foreign policy and how he intends to orchestrate the entire national security team to advance our United States interests.
Our allies and our adversaries know that a permanent defense secretary has the support of both the commander in chief and the American people, as symbolized by the Senate confirmation process. Whoever is nominated will assuredly be measured not only by technical knowledge but also by the ability to connect with allies, lawmakers, service members, and even competitors in implementing our national defense policies. With so many challenges, the president must have a fully staffed team in those few key positions critical to responding to global events. Effectiveness is lessened with temporary officeholders, regardless of how proficient they may be.
Everyone has been in a meeting when the boss has to leave and turns things over to the deputy. There is a palpable change in the room. The assistant coach is not the head coach. There is a sense of disappointment when the chief suddenly cannot attend some event and sends someone to speak in place. There is no real substitute for the actual leader of an organization. Anyone who has served in a military unit, run a business, played on a team, or worked in a government agency knows this well.
Although the president has extraordinarily capable people serving the country in acting capacities in a number of departments and agencies, including Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the United States must have a confirmed defense secretary without delay. Perception is a significant part of effectiveness in office, and being formally confirmed by the Senate for a permanent appointment gathers legitimacy, authority, and gravitas. The president should nominate a defense secretary without delay. Two months is far too long. Our country needs swift action now.
James Jay Carafano is the vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Roger Zakheim is the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.