James Webb is a bit of a contradiction. And that is precisely why President Donald Trump is said to be considering him as his next Secretary of Defense.
In his resignation letter, the now former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that Trump has “the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with” his own. A brusque combat veteran with a healthy skepticism for the employment of American military power, Webb might be that guy.
The 72-year-old Webb graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968, earning a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam, earning a Navy Cross, the second highest valor award. His last assignments before his medical retirement in 1972 were as an instructor at Quantico, and in the Navy secretariat at the Pentagon.
Georgetown to the Pentagon
There he caught the government bug. After graduating from Georgetown Law, he worked for several years on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In 1987, after serving for three years as the first assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be the secretary of the Navy, the first Annapolis grad to hold the position.
But Webb’s style was at odds with the patrician Frank Carlucci, who had succeeded Caspar Weinberger at the top of the Pentagon. When, just 10 months into Webb’s tenure, Carlucci put a dent in plans for a 600-ship Navy by ordering the decommissioning of 16 older frigates from the fleet, Webb resigned in what the Washington Post called at the time “a fiery barrage of moral outrage and personal frustration.”
Elected to the Senate as an anti-war Democrat in 2006, Webb was a fierce critic of the Iraq War, once refusing to answer President George W. Bush when Bush asked how Webb’s son, a Marine rifleman, was doing. In the Senate, he tried to cut-off funds for the Iraq War, which made a lot of people mad, but he also conceived and led the fight for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, for which I and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of veterans, are grateful.
And while he ran for president in 2016 as a Democrat, he was clearly out of place sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley. Too dovish for the Republican Party and too hawkish for the Democratic Party, Webb might be the right guy for the Trump administration.
Webb and Trump view armed conflict similarly, but can they get along?
As I said on Christmas Eve, no one the president picks will likely inspire the troops the way Mattis did. Few can. But having a SecDef who wore the uniform is important, because it makes troops feel as though the person making the decisions understands what those decisions mean for them.
Many times throughout my military career, I read a new policy or directive and wondered who in the heck thought it was a good idea. When I got to the Pentagon and learned what went into making those decisions, they made much more sense. But I still wondered why our senior leaders didn’t do a better job of explaining the reasoning behind them. “Theirs but to do and die” only works to a point. Eventually, some sort of explanation for a policy should be forthcoming.
Mattis struck me as the kind of leader who explained his decisions to his troops, because he speaks their language. Webb has always given me the same impression. He speaks his mind, and clearly isn’t afraid to speak out when he thinks something is stupid.
He also shares Trump’s unease with sending American troops into combat without a well-defined strategy. While I would personally prefer a somewhat more hawkish SecDef, I can think of worse choices than Webb. And Mattis was right: the president does deserve a secretary who shares his views.
The main concern would be his ability to get along with the White House in the long term. Two personalities as forceful as Trump and Webb are bound to clash eventually. Another sudden and fiery Webb departure would be bad for the DoD and bad for the country. The current White House, however, is likely to accept that risk.