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More than military rank needed for defense job

Military analyst Jack Jacobs: Presidential candidates have started thinking about who they would want in their Cabinet to advise them on national security. In making their choices, they must consider how much policy experience an applicant has, not just how high a military rank he or she carries.
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Over a year into presidential campaign season, there still hasn't been much discussion on the substantive issues facing our country — and there probably will not be until after the conventions are over. Once the primaries foolishness is over and we have two candidates vying for the presidency, we can expect to hear proposed solutions to our nation's problems.

Among the many difficulties we face is the war in Iraq, but Iraq is only one of a wide variety of national security problems the new president and Congress will have to deal with. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was supposed to simplify matters, has actually complicated our defense by propelling new independent states onto the world stage, by reducing the stabilizing influence of a large regional actor, and by replacing bilateral fear with multilateral uncertainty.

And there are other challenges, including Kurdish nationalism, the utility of NATO, nuclear proliferation, Korea, the expansion of China and the potential for war over Taiwan, and instability in our own hemisphere. The new administration will have plenty to do.

We have heard precious little about these subjects from the candidates, at least partially because they do not yet have an understanding of them, let alone have fully-formed opinions. But recognizing that some expertise may be required between the summer and November, they have begun to assemble teams of people who ostensibly grasp the nuances of national security.

Candidates need to think more about military experience
And some of the campaigns have been quick to tout the identities and backgrounds of the retired military officers they have attracted to their folds. Alas, many are not particularly impressive, with undistinguished resumes displaying more experience as bureaucrats than as warriors or strategists.

Neither ground combat experience nor service at the highest levels of policy formation necessarily qualifies someone to render cogent advice on national security. There are many officials with excellent credentials but nothing else who could serve as policy advisers.

But it seems that the single characteristic that impresses the candidates in this campaign is military rank. And, evidently unknown to the candidates, being a retired general officer carries with it no certainty of quality strategic thought. Indeed, the nature of a military career these days is such that high-ranking officers spend much more time in staff positions than they spend with troops. And almost none has experience in policy formation, staff work being so narrowly focused, even at the highest levels, on budgetary minutiae and inconsequential procedural issues in the Pentagon and other headquarters.

Often, those with no military service are impressed with superficial accouterments: awards, decorations, title, rank. But the dangers we face are real and complex and will not yield to superficialities, and the candidates need to think more about experience than rank if they ever want to think clearly about our national security.

Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.