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Hillary for Defense?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
June 12, 2010
Wall Street Journal


The biggest political surprises often hide in plain sight. President Obama might be planning one because his re-election could hinge on it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be at the heart of this blockbuster. Here's how and why it could happen.

Step one may come in a year or so when Defense Secretary Robert Gates retires as clouds darken over Afghanistan and possibly Iraq, and brawls erupt over cutting military spending. Mr. Gates has given Mr. Obama credibility on national security, which was why he was asked to stay at the Pentagon after the 2008 election.

But there were other reasons. While Democrats knew they lacked public trust on national security, they couldn't scrape up a plausible Democrat for the job. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former career military man, was a candidate but reportedly declined the honor. The White House would find itself in the same pickle after Mr. Gates's departure, with no Democrat commanding the necessary bipartisan stature.

That is, no one except Hillary Clinton. Politically, no Democrat is better positioned. She has established herself as right of center or near conservative on national security. With Mr. Gates gone, Mr. Obama would need political cover, and Mrs. Clinton has the necessary hard-line standing in the country and in Congress. She'd give him more political protection for tough decisions on Afghanistan, for example, than would any other Democrat.

She also has terrific relations with the military brass, including Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired generals like the highly respected Army four-star Jack Keane. She knows defense issues from her days on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Senate would approve her in two days.

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