01/26/2013 09:41 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

Democrats and Defense

There is a distinct pattern for Democratic presidents to select Republicans as Secretaries of Defense. These include: Bill Cohen, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta (a Democrat who began as a Republican), and now Chuck Hagel. All of these were good Secretaries. Bill Cohen is a friend of many years, and I strongly support Chuck Hagel.

But the question is whether there are any Democrats who are qualified to manage the Pentagon and if not why not. There is some history to consider. For decades, Taft (or traditional conservative, isolationist) Republicans claimed that the Democratic party was the war party. They cited Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson as evidence. The political claim was: "Democrats get us into wars." This was repeated by a traditionally conservative Republican Robert Dole as recently as the late 1970s.

But he was late in his timing. Anti-Vietnam war protesters gravitated toward the Democratic party during the 1968 and 1972 elections and, thereafter, exerted influence on most matters relating to the military. They opposed the draft, most major new weapons systems, military intervention almost anywhere, Cold War confrontations, and most of all increased military budgets. To be liberal was to be skeptical if not hostile toward defense and the military.

As a new member of the Senate Armed Services Committee during this transition from war party to peace party in the 1970s, this became counter-productive at the least and obstructionist at the worst. We had legitimate national security concerns. The issue wasn't to run and hide from this reality but how best to respond to it. My response was to form the Military Reform caucus in the Congress to emphasize the preeminence of people not weapons, the right strategies and tactics, and only then the weapons that were needed and to spend more than 35 years studying defense.

All that is history. But if you look at the national leaders the Democratic party produced in the last 30 or 40 years, very few qualified as knowledgeable about security and defense matters. So, once elected to national office, they found it necessary to look to the new war party, the Republicans, for credentials on defense. It was nonsense to believe that by selecting a Republican Secretary of Defense a Democratic White House was buying insurance against attacks for being "weak on defense." It has never worked. There is no such insurance, as President Obama will find with Secretary of Defense Hagel whose nomination will be opposed by many if not most Republicans.

As a decorated Vietnam war veteran, Senator Hagel is rightly skeptical of using military force as the preeminent foreign policy tool and he has more strictly defined U.S. national security interests than the knee-jerk hawks who rarely find a conflict in which they do not wish to intervene. (It is tempting here once again to point out how few of these hawks ever wore the uniform or experienced shots fired in anger.) But even after he has a term as a successful Secretary of Defense as I hope, there will still remain the central question: When will Democrats rightly claim to be the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, experienced, imaginative leaders on defense of our nation?

This story appears in Issue 34 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Feb. 1.