The Magazine

The Long Arm of Colin Powell

Will the next secretary of state also run the Pentagon?

Dec 25, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 15 • By MATTHEW REES
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GEORGE W. BUSH has never left much doubt that he intended to name Colin Powell his secretary of state. What Bush may not have foreseen is that Powell would try to press his influence beyond Foggy Bottom. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been lobbying for Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to become defense secretary. And this in turn has instigated a minor turf battle within the clubby Bush world. While Dick Cheney has signaled to some that he could accept Ridge, knowledgeable sources say he would actually prefer to see someone get the job who's more of a counterweight to the State Department, like former Indiana senator Dan Coats.


The charitable view of Powell's support for Ridge is that Ridge possesses some traits desirable in a defense secretary: He has military experience, having won a Bronze Star in Vietnam, and he has managerial experience by virtue of serving the past six years as governor of Pennsylvania (this is the case being made to reporters and Republican leaders by Powell's chief political adviser, Washington lobbyist Ken Duberstein). Ridge has two other things in common with Powell: He's an ideological moderate, and Bush likes him.


But many top Republicans, noting Powell's political savvy, ascribe to him more Machiavellian motives. They believe he wants a weak defense secretary so it will be easier for him to intervene in Pentagon business. (This is one reason Paul Wolfowitz, a top Pentagon official under Bush senior, was scotched for the top job, as he would have come in with his own power base.) It's easy to see how this could happen. Powell has been pushing for one of his lieutenants, Richard Armitage, to be given a senior Pentagon post, perhaps even deputy secretary, the number two job. What's more, other than his service in Vietnam, Ridge has no particular experience in national security or defense issues, never having sat on any of the relevant committees during his 12 years in Congress.


Indeed, were Ridge to become defense secretary, he'd be one of the least qualified people ever to hold the job. He would also be hobbled by his dovish voting record in the House: against the Strategic Defense Initiative, against funding the contras, and for one of the most wrongheaded liberal ideas of all -- the nuclear freeze. Some congressional conservatives, including Senate Armed Services member Jim Inhofe, have already gone public with their opposition to Ridge.


Conservatives are much more enthusiastic about Coats, for a number of reasons. First, he's extremely well versed in defense policy, having served on the Armed Services Committee during his entire Senate tenure, and chaired subcommittees on personnel and airland forces. He also loves the subject matter. "If he had to choose between committee hearings," says a former Coats aide, "he always went to Armed Services." Second, Coats led the fight among Senate Republicans for preserving the bans on gays in the military and abortion in overseas military hospitals, and loudly questioned whether women should be permitted to serve in combat.


Third, Coats has a long and trusted relationship with Dick Cheney. They served together in the House for eight years, and Coats's seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee coincided with Cheney's tenure as defense secretary. Last, Coats would be easily confirmed, and enjoys good relations not only with his former Republican colleagues, but also with Democrats, thus easing the difficult task of winning increased spending on defense. (He and Joe Lieberman were the authors of a proposal, adopted in 1996, requiring the Pentagon and a group of independent military analysts to carry out sweeping reviews of Pentagon spending in light of expected future threats.)


Well-placed allies further enhance Coats's chances of being chosen. Senate majority leader Trent Lott is backing Coats -- they were close friends in the Senate -- and raised the issue with Bush during a December 2 meeting in Crawford, Texas. What's more, Dave Gribben, a former chief of staff to Coats, is now a top Cheney aide. Nor is Gribben the only former aide to Coats who's well positioned: Dave Hoppe is Lott's chief of staff, Mike Gerson is Bush's chief speechwriter, and Ziad Ojakli is a top aide on Bush's transition team.


As for the nuts and bolts of defense policy, Coats tends to be in the conservative mainstream, though not entirely predictable. He generally supports increased military spending, but criticized the Clinton administration's deployment of troops to Bosnia in December 1995, and opposed Bob Dole's measure authorizing the deployment. Similarly, while he never joined the jihad against the Navy for Tailhook, he did strongly oppose the promotion of Bob Stumpf after the Navy admitted Stumpf had been present for some of the hijinks in Las Vegas.