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Who Should Be Secretary of Defense?

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Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

George Fernandes, the Indian socialist trade union leader and politician, was a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons. That is, until he became India's Defense Minister in 1998. That year, India detonated its first nuclear bomb and officially entered the nuclear club. And Fernandes? The former peacenik had become the country's number-one nukes booster.

Do appointments shape their office or does the office shape the appointment? Imagine what would happen if, improbably, President-elect Barack Obama appointed Dennis Kucinich to head the Pentagon. If he tried to implement any of his excellent plans for demilitarizing the United States, Kucinich would encounter enormous push-back, non-compliance, outright insubordination. To get anything done, even as the head of this powerful institution, Kucinich would have to play by the rules. He would either pull a Fernandes or resign in frustration. Despite all that we are taught in our world of individualism, institutions have a tricky tendency of imposing their stamp on anyone who falls within their orbit.

By this argument, Obama should just stick with Robert Gates as secretary of defense, since the Pentagon would carry on as before regardless of who heads it up. But that would be a grave mistake.

According to the commentaries from the foreign policy establishment, Gates is the obvious pick for the top job in the Pentagon. In The Dream Team, Foreign Policy asked the usual suspects to provide a list of their usual suspects for the next administration. Half of the worthies chose Gates to continue. Gates is popular among the mandarin class because he "inspires confidence in all quarters" (Robert Gallucci), "the so-called surge succeeded under his watch" (Robert Baer) "he seems to be opposed to a strike on Iran" (Gideon Rachman), and "he doesn't seem to have a partisan bone in his body" (Leslie Gelb).

Gates has certainly come a long way from the time when he advocated bombing Nicaragua, exaggerated the Soviet threat, and dipped his toes into the Iran-Contra scandal (probably more than he admitted). In the last two years, he may well have stood between Dick Cheney's trigger finger and various targets in Iran. Of course, he had very small shoes to fill. After Donald Rumsfeld, even Attila the Hun would have looked good at the helm of the Pentagon.

But comparing favorably to Rumsfeld is not qualification enough for the job. Here's why Obama shouldn't keep Gates.

• Gates supports a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when even George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are calling for nuclear abolition.

• He wants to apply his surge approach to Afghanistan, when we should be thinking about withdrawal.

• Although Gates has criticized the huge budget and influence of the Pentagon - as Foreign Policy In Focus peace and security editor Miriam Pemberton points out in Keep Secretary Gates? This Simple Test Should Decide -- "when he had the chance to fix this, he didn't. In the FY 2009 budget request -- the last he will be officially responsible for -- he made the problem worse by adding $36 billion to his budget. This increase, as former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni noted, is roughly equivalent to the entire budget for International Affairs."

• As Robert Dreyfuss argues in The Nation, "by naming a Republican to Defense, Obama risks a concession to the canard that Democrats are ill-suited to handle national security, and he would pass up the opportunity to inject bold thinking and budget-cutting - both of which the Pentagon sorely needs."

If Gates is the wrong person for the job and Kucinich is on nobody's short list, who should take over at the Pentagon? In the aforementioned Dream Team article, The Nation's incomparable Katrina vanden Heuvel, wisely chose Lawrence Korb, who co-authored the Unified Security Budget with Miriam Pemberton.

But here's another suggestion: Antonio Taguba.

Taguba is the retired major general who authored the internal report on the Abu Ghraib scandal that confirmed widespread abuse. He also supplied a preface to a report on torture this year by Physicians for Human Rights in which he wrote, "There is no longer any doubt that the current administration committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

At this critical juncture, we don't need someone at the head of the Pentagon who is satisfied with the status quo. We don't need someone who promises change. We need someone, like Taguba, who has taken unpopular positions and stood up to the top brass. Unlike George Fernandes, Taguba would have a fighting chance of bucking the odds and profoundly changing an institution notoriously resistant to change.

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