George Fernandes, the Indian socialist trade union leader and politician, was a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons. That is, until he became India’s Defense Minister in 1998. That year, India detonated its first nuclear bomb and officially entered the nuclear club. Fernandes, the former peacenik, had become the country’s number-one nukes booster.

Do appointments shape their office or does the office shape the appointment? Imagine what would happen if, improbably, President-elect Barack Obama appointed Dennis Kucinich to head the Pentagon. If he tried to implement any of his excellent plans for demilitarizing the United States, Kucinich would encounter enormous pushback, non-compliance, outright insubordination. To get anything done, even as the head of this powerful institution, Kucinich would have to play by the rules. He would either pull a Fernandes or resign in frustration. Despite all that we are taught in our world of individualism, institutions have a tricky tendency of imposing their stamp on anyone who falls within their orbit.

By this argument, Obama should just stick with Robert Gates as secretary of defense, since the Pentagon would carry on as before regardless of who heads it up. But that would be a grave mistake. According to the commentaries from the foreign policy establishment, Gates is the obvious pick for the top job in the Pentagon. In The Dream Team, Foreign Policy asked the usual suspects to provide a list of their usual suspects for the next administration. Half of the worthies chose Gates to continue. Gates is popular among the mandarin class because he “inspires confidence in all quarters” (Robert Gallucci), “the so-called surge succeeded under his watch” (Robert Baer), “he seems to be opposed to a strike on Iran” (Gideon Rachman), and “he doesn’t seem to have a partisan bone in his body” (Leslie Gelb).

Gates has certainly come a long way from the time when he advocated bombing Nicaragua, exaggerated the Soviet threat, and dipped his toes into the Iran-Contra scandal (probably more than he admitted). In the last two years, he may well have stood between Dick Cheney’s trigger finger and various targets in Iran. Of course, he had very small shoes to fill. After Donald Rumsfeld, even Attila the Hun would have looked good at the helm of the Pentagon.

But comparing favorably to Rumsfeld is not qualification enough for the job. Here’s why Obama shouldn’t keep Gates.

  • Gates supports a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when even George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are calling for nuclear abolition.
  • He wants to apply his surge approach to Afghanistan, when we should be thinking about withdrawal.
  • Although Gates has criticized the huge budget and influence of the Pentagon – as Foreign Policy In Focus peace and security editor Miriam Pemberton points out in Keep Secretary Gates? This Simple Test Should Decide — “when he had the chance to fix this, he didn’t. In the FY 2009 budget request — the last he will be officially responsible for — he made the problem worse by adding $36 billion to his budget. This increase, as former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni noted, is roughly equivalent to the entire budget for International Affairs.”

As Robert Dreyfuss argues in The Nation, “by naming a Republican to Defense, Obama risks a concession to the canard that Democrats are ill-suited to handle national security, and he would pass up the opportunity to inject bold thinking and budget-cutting — both of which the Pentagon sorely needs.”

If Gates is the wrong person for the job and Kucinich is on nobody’s short list, who should take over at the Pentagon? In the aforementioned Dream Team article, The Nation‘s incomparable Katrina vanden Heuvel wisely chose Lawrence Korb, who co-authors our Unified Security Budget with Miriam Pemberton.

But here’s another suggestion: Antonio Taguba.

Taguba is the retired major general who authored the internal report on the Abu Ghraib scandal that confirmed widespread abuse. He also supplied a preface to a report on torture this year by Physicians for Human Rights in which he wrote, “There is no longer any doubt that the current administration committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

At this critical juncture, we don’t need someone at the head of the Pentagon who is satisfied with the status quo. We don’t need someone who promises change. We need someone, like Taguba, who has taken unpopular positions and stood up to the top brass. Unlike George Fernandes, Taguba would have a fighting chance of bucking the odds and profoundly changing an institution notoriously resistant to change.

The Scale of the Crisis

The Bush administration used 9/11 to radically change U.S. foreign and domestic policy. The Obama administration is gearing up to use the current economic crisis to similar effect. The rumored $700 billion stimulus package the Dems are preparing would go toward repairing infrastructure, promoting environmentally sustainable technology, and creating jobs. As importantly, it could change how Americans think about democratic institutions and drive a stake into the Reagan-era mentality that government can’t play a key role in improving people’s lives.

China, too, has announced a stimulus package of comparable size: $586 billion. It, too, is looking at investments into infrastructure, education, and health. But FPIF contributor Samuel Bleicher has some advice for the Chinese leadership: think green. In an annotation of a recent New York Times editorial, Bleicher argues that the global environment cannot support an American-style consumer economy in China. This, he suggests, “is a recipe for economic, environmental, and probably political, disaster. It’s a path to the past, not the future.”

What takes place locally should take place globally as well. Instead of focusing on banks, the international community should devote resources to raising the floor. And that, FPIF contributor Daniel Bradlow argues, means Africa. “The financial crisis should not divert our attention away from the other crises affecting the international community,” he writes in International Financial Reform and Africa. “This means that Africa needs, and should seek G20 support for, funding that supports infrastructure projects that provide underserved communities with sustainable access to energy, water, transport, and telecommunications, and are based on responsible social and environmental policies and practices.”

Don’t expect free trade agreements to be part of the mix of solutions to the current economic morass. Support for these pacts has been falling in the United States. And in November, as FPIF contributors Todd Tucker and Lori Wallach explain in Fair Trade Victory, “at least 41 new fair-traders were elected to House and Senate seats, which represent a net gain of 33 in Congress’ overall economic justice contingent. This comes on top of the 37 net fair-trade pickups in the 2006 congressional elections. These new members campaigned to oppose further NAFTA-style agreements and advocate for positive alternatives that ensure widely shared prosperity. Obama himself made many fair-trade commitments, including a pledge to replace ‘fast track’ trade negotiating authority, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and oppose a NAFTA-like pact with Colombia.”

North Korea and Somalia

There’s a hint of good news coming out of the Horn of Africa. “At long last, the fragile state of Somalia seems to be slowly resurfacing from a searing bout of violence and humanitarian crisis,” FPIF senior analyst Michael Shank explains in Somalia Resurfaces. “Interestingly, the light at the end of this decades-long tunnel is not burning at the behest of the United States or the United Nations; rather, it burns because Somali leaders, both within the government and without, have banded together. Frustrated by failed foreign interventions, they are now seeking sustainable Somali-based solutions.”

Meanwhile, North Korea is threatening to shut down its border with South Korea and put an end to the promising cooperation the two countries have gradually built over the last decade. Still functioning, however, is the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a set of factories run by South Korea with North Korean workers located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

The Obama administration should pay close attention to initiatives like the Kaesong Industrial Complex in order to get beyond the policy dichotomy of “regime change” versus “nonproliferation.” As I urge in The North Korean Conundrum at TomDispatch, “If there is one thing the Obama administration needs to do, it is to widen the American lens when it comes to North Korea. It should reframe U.S. policy by pursuing nonproliferation goals through regime change. Here’s the rub: That doesn’t mean pushing for a North Korean collapse or brandishing military threats. If the new administration wants change everyone can believe in, it must first recognize, and then leverage, the change that North Korea has already embarked on and American officials have largely ignored.”

This focus on economic engagement with North Korea applies to human rights policy as well. Here, too, the Kaesong complex offers important clues on how to improve human rights through engagement. “Rather than being worked to death, the Kaesong employees are, through access to higher wages and better food, being restored to health,” I write in Engaging Pyongyang on Human Rights. “North Korean workers at one factory were able to work for only 5.5 hours at first; after a year of improved diet — lunches provided by South Korean firms, food provided during night shifts — they can now work 6.5 hours. Labor regulations provide for up to 48-hour work weeks, overtime pay, vacation, maternity leave, and so forth. As such, the project meets basic food security needs and establishes important labor standards that, in practice, exceed conditions at other North Korean workplaces. Conversations about labor rights can take place in this very specific case, rather than abstractly or as part of international conventions that are frequently observed in the breach.”

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