Mission Impossible?

The man whom Barack Obama nominated today to be the next Secretary of Defense, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, will face a tough fight for confirmation. If approved, he may face an even tougher fight in the job.

Running the Pentagon is difficult even in the best of times. Today, however, America’s forces are spread thin, and money is in short supply. That’s one reason Obama touted Hagel as a man who could make “tough fiscal choices.”

Peter Drucker had a lot of sympathy for the men he’d seen in the post, for he viewed taming the Defense Department as one of the toughest jobs conceivable.

One area of trouble was in defense procurement, a system dating back to World War II that, at its worst, has amounted to an absurd and wasteful collusion between semi-private defense contractors and the federal government. “Yet everyone concerned also knows that any attempt to think through and restructure the relationship would immediately run into philosophical contradictions and irreconcilable differences between ‘what ought to be’ and what is needed,” Drucker observed in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “As one high Defense Department official once put it, ‘We know it’s chaos; but that’s still better than paralysis.’”

Image source: DVIDSHUB
Image source: DVIDSHUB

Another area of trouble, in Drucker’s eyes, was the unwieldiness of all the entities under DOD’s umbrella. “The Department of Defense of the United States has so far been incapable of organizing for any effective joint performance other than to destroy a succession of Secretaries of Defense,” Drucker wrote in the late 1950s in Landmarks of Tomorrow. “But is this because it is too large? Or because it is not large enough, that is, because we still retain three armed services instead of merging them into one? . . . I incline to the latter view; but I cannot prove it.”

Over a decade later, Drucker still considered the job to be a possible “widow maker,” the sort of post that keeps defeating qualified people. “Despite Mr. [RobertMcNamara’s lion-taming act at the Pentagon, I am not yet convinced that the job of Secretary of Defense of the United States is really possible,” he noted in The Effective Executive. So what was the solution?  Wrote Drucker: “I admit I cannot conceive of an alternative.” 

What do you think: Is it possible to be a successful Defense secretary—and did Obama pick the right person for the job?