In a party struggling to find its identity between Bush and Reagan Republicans, the neoconservatives, the moderate conservatives and the hard-line conservatives, former Sen. Dan Coats is in a category of his own. It’s no wonder then that President-elect George W. Bush is eyeing him for secretary of defense. He has managed to be consistent, principled and experienced while also acting as a bridge-builder to key players on the other side of the aisle.
He and Sen. Joe Lieberman co-authored a proposal, passed in 1996, to require the Pentagon to do a strategic housecleaning and update U.S. military capacity from a defense ready to fight Cold War enemies to a force prepared to defend against new threats in the information and technology age. In essence, he began preparing then for what he might be asked to do every day for the next four years identify new threats to the armed forces in the 21st century and decide how to deal with them.
In 1997, he and Mr. Lieberman worked together on questions pertaining to the National Missile Defense system (NMD), such as how to fund an up to $2 billion shortfall in research and development. As Mr. Bush has put his support behind the development of NMD, he is right to consider someone who has already been involved in answering hard questions surrounding the system. Research and development of NMD will ward off threats posed by nuclear states such as China, Russia and potentially Iran and benefit NATO allies which could be protected by the system.
Mr. Coats also has experience in planning for international allied defense capabilities. He has questioned Secretary of Defense Cohen on the readiness of Eastern European military structures to fit NATO standards and how to establish a process for members to be included in NATO. He has considered the financial costs of NATO military readiness, a subject which will be important as the administration streamlines U.S. involvement in NATO missions and works in cooperation with the European rapid reaction force. The defense secretary will play a crucial role in defining the relationship between the European force and NATO.
A former Army man himself, Mr. Coats has fought for military reform and served on the Senate Armed Services Committee for a decade. He also served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. His strong relationship to Vice President-elect Dick Cheney could make the transition even more seamless, should Mr. Bush second his running mate’s choice for defense secretary. In Mr. Coats, the new administration would not only have a man with a vision for the full potential of American defense, but one who has already spent years preparing for the job.