As a nuclear weapons nerd, I do love a presidential transition. Every four or eight years, I get to watch beffudled politicians discover that the United States Department of Energy doesn’t actually have anything to do with energy policy. It would be more accurately named the Department of Nuclear Weapons.
If you didn't know that, or forgot, it’s OK. Rick Perry probably forgot, too.
Yes, the former Texas governor is reportedly President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be the Secretary of Energy. The same Rick Perry who’s gaffe-studded run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president included a promise to abolish three federal departments – Commerce, Education and … he couldn’t remember the third. But the third was the Energy Department because of course it was.
Perry’s appointment says a lot about how Trump values – or doesn’t – expertise in a world of complicated threats, chief among them the spread of nuclear weapons. Once upon a time, it was normal to stash an ex-pol at Energy. By that old standard Perry is better qualified than most. But as the spread of nuclear weapons looms larger, we’ve come to value having a Secretary of Energy with real technical chops.
Consider the Energy Department’s mission. While Energy does spend some money on “energy” research – about 22 percent of its budget– the largest expenditures are for making nuclear weapons and cleaning up their legacy. Those two categories account for nearly 60 percent of the Energy Department’s budget for fiscal year 2017. And with Trump enviously praising Russia’s nuclear arsenal as “tippy top,” that percentage will probably grow. At least the part for making nuclear weapons. We’ll see about cleaning up afterwards.
Once upon a time, Perry’s appointment might not have seemed so crazy. Perry spent a record 14 years as governor of Texas, which is home to the PANTEX plant in Amarillo – the primary place in the United States for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons. PANTEX gets about $700 million a year in federal funding, which goes a long way in the Texas panhandle. Being a former governor of state that has a large nuclear-weapons facility under contract to the Department of Energy might reasonably have been considered a qualification. That sort of familiarity was certainly a selling point for Bill Richardson, who had represented the Los Alamos area, home to one of our nation’s nuclear weapons design laboratories, in Congress. Perry wouldn’t be the first former politician to land at Energy. One secretary was a dentist, for crying out loud, although some of my friends have suggested securing the department’s funding is rather more like pulling teeth than I’d like to admit.
But in recent years, the trend has been to appoint a Secretary of Energy with real technical expertise. President Bush appointed Samuel Bodman, who had a distinguished career as an MIT-trained chemical engineer before making a fortune in the private sector. President Obama upped the ante, appointing Berkeley’s Steven Chu and MIT’s Ernest Moniz to the position. Both are physicists. Chu has a Nobel Prize. By contrast, Perry took four chemistry courses and got two Cs, a D and an F. He got a C in physics. And a D in something called “Meat.”
Perry was widely mocked for trying to address concerns about his intelligence by suddenly donning a pair of eyeglasses. It is easy to make fun of Perry, although it’s probably not entirely fair. He managed to repeatedly win reelection in Texas despite earning a C in public speaking. Grades aren’t everything. He’s probably not any more stupid than Gerald Ford was clumsy. But it turns out having a technically-sophisticated Secretary of Energy can be a real advantage.
Moniz, the current Energy Secretary played an instrumental role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, which is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He negotiated directly with the Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and himself an MIT-trained physicist. Diplomats joked about the “Ali and Ernie show.” The Iran deal is a marvel in how its handles incredibly thorny technical issues. Frankly speaking, I don’t think Americana and Iranian diplomats could have done it without the presence of Moniz and Salehi. And, in the aftermath of the agreement, Moniz became the Obama administration’s most effective advocate for the deal by far. His appearance on The Daily Show was a tour de force. Had Obama appointed a washed-up Democratic pol as Secretary of Energy, he might not have what may turn out to be his signature foreign policy achievement.
Of course, the Iran deal might not last long under President Trump. But that’s what throws Perry’s appointment into such sharp relief. If Trump is going to replace the Iran deal, he’s going to count on Perry to help renegotiate it? Perry is undoubtedly a talented politician who is deserving of a cabinet post, just not one that involves nuclear weapons.
Much has been made of Trump’s disdain for expertise, whether its refusing intelligence briefings or dismissing the national security community as incompetent. Perry’s nomination suggests that Trump doesn’t think he needs technical advice, either. Trump thinks he can get better deal with Iran than Obama and Moniz? OK. Trump will also have to find a way to stanch North Korea’s nuclear program. In doing so, he’ll need to be more specific than simply inviting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for cheeseburgers. And he’ll need to respond to Russia’s bewildering array of new nuclear weapons systems, from underwater drones to treaty-violating cruise missiles. And then there is also China. And those are the nuclear threats we know about. Every administration usually discovers one or two surprises are lurking out there. Mismanaging any one of these threats could result in a catastrophe.
But fear not, Rick Perry is putting on his eyeglasses.