In the resignation letter that stunned Washington, outgoing Pentagon chief James Mattis told President Trump he "had the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned" with the commander-in-chief's. Contrary to Mattis' Beltway image as the indispensable man, a qualified candidate fitting this description exists in James Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia.
Like the man he would be replacing, Webb's credentials are strong and his commitment to the military is unflinching. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and decorated Marine who saw combat in Vietnam, Webb earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star medal, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He served on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and did pro bono legal work for veterans. He quit as secretary of the Navy because he didn't think President Reagan was willing to spend what was needed on defense. Yes, you read that right: Reagan wasn't willing to spend enough on defense; Webb favored a 600-ship Navy.
Yet Webb has been calling for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East since the Persian Gulf War. In sharp contrast with much of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, he opposed the Iraq War before it started. And he grounded his arguments on both fronts in a conservative realism that is highly compatible with Trump and impossible to confuse with pacifism: "Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall," he wrote in 2004.
Webb would be highly confirmable compared to other contenders. Key Democrats, including Virginia's Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, would be hard pressed to vote against Webb's confirmation. The Republican Senate majority would also be compelled to support him.
Most importantly, Webb would be an adult in the room capable of responsibly and successfully implementing Trump's "America First" foreign policy vision instead of trying to thwart it. There is indeed considerable public, academic, and even military support for not remaining bogged down in indefinite, unwinnable wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Webb noted these important voices were being shut out of the official debate in Washington in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, saying: "Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues, these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns." The situation remains much the same today: Trump's rumored plans for limited retrenchment were met with hysteria.
Still, a man elected to the Senate as a progressive "netroots" darling in the 2006 Democratic wave, and who would go on two years later to endorse Barack Obama for president, would seem an odd fit for Trump's Cabinet. But as a populist and Jacksonian who appealed to the white working class, it's arguable that Webb was doing Trump's act before Trump was. Webb also appeared to prefer Trump to Hillary Clinton, like many other Obama supporters who went on to vote for Trump. Obama and Trump have little in common, other than they both understand that military adventurism does not always make the intervening country safer and stronger. Webb agrees with them.
Serving as defense secretary may be Webb's best public service opportunity. In the Senate, he was stuck in an ill-fitting liberal box. As a short-lived candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, he found the party of Harry Truman had passed him by. Webb is a better fit at the Department of Defense than many people already occupying senior positions under Trump, including National Security Adviser John Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Webb's eclectic record may come back to haunt him in any confirmation hearings. Republican Never Trumpers could assail him as too liberal, while Democrats paint him as too conservative or even pro-Confederate (some senators might even do both).
Nevertheless, the country could use a steady and experienced hand who cares deeply about our military and national security to guide Trump as he tries to wind down America's lengthy — and in some cases, unauthorized — wars while keeping the country safe. Webb was "born fighting" for this kind of role.