Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JULY 2011

When Robert Gates, the country's outstanding secretary of defense, retired on June 30, President Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor given for public service. Gates had "selflessly dedicated his life to ensuring the security of the American people," the president said.

Gates is a role model for bright young Americans who wish to heed the call to service of President John F. Kennedy in 1961: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Secretary Gates started his long public career in the 1960s as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and rose steadily through its ranks and at the National Security Council to become CIA director before retiring in 1993 He then entered academic life and eventually became president of Texas A&M University in 2002.

President George W. Bush persuaded Gates to return to government service, in November 2006, to replace the controversial Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. In his four and a half years at the Pentagon, Gates restored the morale of the military, instituted major management reforms, and oversaw two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a new conflict in Libya. It's a commendable record for this dedicated American.

Ambassador Lawrence Eagleburger, another distinguished public servant (who died in Charlottesville last month) was the only career Foreign Service Officer to rise to the top position of Secretary of State. After his long diplomatic service that commenced in the 1950s, Eagleburger was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 for outstanding public service.

A third outstanding career officer, General David Petraeus, will retire from the Army in September after thirty-seven years of military service. But President Obama has asked him to continue in public service as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a job for which his experience in Afghanistan and Iraq fully qualifies him.

What do Robert Gates, Lawrence Eagleburger, and David Petraeus, three remarkable Americans, have in common that explains their rise to the top positions in Washington's most important national security agencies? In short, they heeded President Kennedy's call to public service."

The federal government needs dedicated young people to opt for public service when they leave America's colleges and universities. As one who made that choice at the University of Michigan many years ago, I am persuaded that most federal jobs offer challenging and personally rewarding experiences, as well as service to the country.

Unfortunately, two impediments to that goal exist today. The first is the large number of political appointees that presidents make to fill the senior ranks of nearly all departments. In the Defense Department, for example, most undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and deputy assistant secretaries are political appointees. Many of them have not served in the military or had experience in defense-related matters.

In the State Department, many top ambassadorial assignments go to people who have contributed substantial sums of money to a president's election campaign. Some have had little foreign policy experience. However, in the Central Intelligence Agency and the four Armed Services, most top jobs are filled by career officers who rise in the ranks through a rigorous selection process.

The U.S. government is unique in emphasizing political appointment. European, Canadian, Australian, and other major countries place a higher value on the role of career officials in the ranks just below cabinet level. The title "Permanent Undersecretary" is the top of the career ladder in those countries, and civil servants are promoted to that level,. Also, most of their ambassadors are career diplomats, not political appointees.

A second impediment facing bright college grads seeking government service is their long wait after the application is filed, and the relatively modest pay that is offered. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management is working to reduce the wait time from six to three months and to offer monetary incentives for work in priority areas. In the slowing U.S. economy, government employment may be more attractive to college graduates.

In an editorial titled "Better Federal Hiring: How to Attract More of the Brightest," the Washington Post (July 4) stated: "It's time for the federal government to take the recruiting of human resources as seriously as successful private and non-profit organizations do. Today's antiquated hiring policies are thwarting a generation of inspired public servants in the making." I couldn't agree more.

File last modified on Tuesday, 12-JUL-2011 3:26 PM EST

Feedback to Author