Pentagon Succession Plan
Thom Shanker reports on a minor bureaucratic move at DoD:
An executive order published without fanfare this month does away with a system for Pentagon succession instituted by former President George W. Bush, which played down the service secretaries and elevated positions held at the time by trusted aides to Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary wanted it that way.
These plans governing Pentagon succession are intended to guarantee civilian control of the military during a doomsday situation, like a nuclear strike or a terrorist attack, when the defense secretary could be taken out of action at the moment when war-fighting decisions must be made. The Bush order, issued in December 2005, continued the traditional sequence of the deputy defense secretary as next in line. But it booted the Army secretary out of the No. 3 slot in the order of succession, in favor of the under secretary of defense for intelligence.
President Obama’s executive order, published March 1, re-establishes the Army to its former place.
If the defense secretary, his deputy and the Army secretary were all hors de combat, authority would then pass to the Navy secretary, then to the Air Force secretary, in the historic order of establishment of the services. Next in line after them would be the under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics; the under secretary for policy; the comptroller, who is the Pentagon’s chief budget officer; and the under secretary for personnel and readiness. Only after all of them would the line lead to the Pentagon’s senior intelligence official.
White House and Defense Department officials said the new executive order was intended to restore Pentagon succession to its traditional pattern and to render a sequence based on the office, not on the personality in that position at any given time. (The succession plan would also take effect should the defense secretary become incapacitated by health problems, but that could be handled in a calm, deliberate manner across the government.)
John Cole observes that the Bush team “basically changed the protocol in order to make sure cronies were in charge no matter what happened. Every time you can’t think you will be surprised by these guys, they go out and one-up themselves.”
It’s true that Rumsfeld preferred to have Stephen Cambone, with whom he had a long relationship, be senior to the Service secretaries, with whom he had no such trust. But so what? These people were all political appointees. If the administration wants to put “cronies” in the line of succession, reshuffling the succession just means they need to ensure a “crony” is the Secretary of the Army.
Second, the problem with Paul Wolfowitz, Cambone, and others in the Rumsfeld posse wasn’t that they were cronies or loyalists. There wasn’t a Michael “Brownie” Brown among them: They were all extraordinarily bright, credentialed, and experienced. The problem was one of groupthink: They all shared a vision of America’s role in the world and the best means of using the instruments of power to achieve it. That’s great for continuity but not so great for vetting policy decisions.
Beyond that, the explanation given at the time for the Bush succession strikes me as eminently plausible: It makes sense to have folks working on DoD-wide issues on a daily basis take over if one’s goal is continuity. The Service secretaries are there to fight for the needs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and spend their days dealing with narrower issues.