Will James Webb Be the Next Secretary of Defense?

Then-Senator Jim Webb, ten years ago while visiting then-admired Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the odd-but-positive political rumors at the start of this odd year is that Donald Trump is considering former Senator James Webb as a successor to James Mattis as secretary of defense.

Among the reasons why this would be odd:

  • Webb last held office as a Democrat, and even ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2016 race.
  • Webb is a famously independent-minded character with no ability to suffer fools. (Knowing them both, I can say that Webb is much less willing to go with the organizational flow than Mattis has been.) In his early 40s, he was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, but he resigned from that position within less than a year (having worked elsewhere in the Pentagon for several years) because of disagreements with the defense secretary of that era, Frank Carlucci.
  • Webb is a gifted novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, who has returned repeatedly to the self-directed literary life after his periods of public service.

Reasons why it would be good news for the country, if it happened:

  • Webb is smart, tough, and principled.
  • He would instantly become the Cabinet member with most substantive knowledge of his department.
  • He would personify a response to the idea that the United States has become a “chickenhawk nation”—always at war, never willing to deal with the domestic or international consequences of war—and that the current administration itself represents the Chickenhawk Way.

Will this happen? I’m betting: No way! Jim Webb is too smart and self-aware to climb into this barrel. But for reading background while the idea is in the air, as a possibility, I offer you:

  • From 2006, background on an Atlantic cover package that Jim Webb and I wrote together—back in 1980, on the occasion of his running for the Senate as a Democrat;
  • From 2012, what Webb, then at the end of his one term in the Senate, was like on the campaign trail for Democrats;
  • From early 2015, my reaction to news that this person I’d known for many years might run for the Democratic nomination, against Hillary Clinton (and others);
  • From late 2015, after Webb had done poorly with the Democratic electorate,  my reaction to news that he might run for president as an independent.

As a friend of Webb’s I’d say to him: Are you crazy? Of course you shouldn’t take that kind of responsibility, in this kind of administration.

As a citizen, I’d feel more comfortable if somehow he ended up holding this responsibility in the chain of command. The items above offered as background while we wait to see what happens next