At the Pentagon, No Business Experience Required

The nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary is a fresh opportunity to trot out the canard that the prime requisite for the Pentagon job is managerial expertise. After all, the secretary manages an annual budget of more than $600 billion and 3.1 million military and civilian employees.

Let's go to the tape, as the sportscasters say.

Over the past six decades, there have been three defense secretaries with extensive managerial experience. Charles Wilson, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been chief executive officer of General Motors Co. Robert McNamara, under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, ran Ford Motor Co. Donald Rumsfeld, after a first tour in the office under President Gerald Ford, was president of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, and of General Instrument Corp. He served at the Pentagon again under President George W. Bush.

That second tour is widely considered a failure. Rumsfeld alienated much of the top brass and botched the occupation of Iraq. In late 2006, he was forced out by Bush.

McNamara, who brought in his "whiz kids" to reshape the Pentagon, became ensnared in the Vietnam War. More than 40 years after he left the post, he remained haunted by his mistakes.

Wilson actually did a decent job, effectively cutting the budget in the Eisenhower years. Still, he is best remembered for declaring: "What was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa," though he is often misquoted.

Conversely, there have been a number of defense secretaries with little managerial experience who get high grades. Melvin Laird, under President Richard Nixon, presided over the creation of the all-volunteer army; William Cohen, President Bill Clinton's third defense secretary, oversaw the Bosnian war as well as extensive defense reforms. The last defense chief, Robert Gates, and the current one, Leon Panetta, had short stints as Central Intelligence Agency director as their chief management credential. Both get exceptional grades for running the department.

Being a good defense chief, it would seem, is less about the experience than about the policies.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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