Roger Zakheim: Springing to America's Defense - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because this Beltway kid is determined to build a stronger America.

By Tracy Moran

“All great change begins at the dinner table,” Ronald Reagan once said. 

Family debates over supper lead to indigestion for most, but they gave Roger Zakheim a taste for civic duty and public policy. “I grew up in a home where if you were agreeing with whoever was at the table with you, that didn’t really earn respect,” the 36-year-old D.C.-based lawyer says. He’s the son of Dov Zakheim, a former Reagan and George W. Bush defense official, so he’s had his fair share of family debates. 

Roger has spent the better part of the last decade working for the U.S. House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and he was co-chair of the Romney for President Defense Working Group, where he helped set the candidate’s defense and national security priorities. He’d likely be a defense official in any future GOP administration, and while “Roger Zakheim” is not a household name yet, he’s one of the people who can shape events in Washington as much as better-known politicians. 

If I have a midlife crisis, you’ll know it if I’m in my Ford F-150.

— Roger Zakheim

Much like the half-court shot he made as a junior to win a high school basketball game in Silver Spring, Maryland, Roger is full of surprises. He’s a modern Orthodox Jew with a hankering for country music; his wife, Tamar, has been warned: “If I have a midlife crisis, you’ll know it if I’m in my Ford F-150.”

Color headshot of Roger Zakheim

Donald Rumsfeld (L) listens to Dr. Dov Zakheim (R) as he testifies before the Senate Committee on Appropriations in May 2002.

Source Getty

His jokes aren’t reserved just for family. Colleagues and even journalists succumb to his playful charm. When asked whether he’s a typical middle child — he’s the second of three boys — Roger quips: “If you’re asking whether I’m well-adjusted, there’s only one answer to that …” Seconds pass before a cackle erupts. The implication? No answer is coming. 

But he stops laughing when discussing U.S. military readiness. As a defense hawk who subscribes to “Reagan’s vision of peace through strength,” Roger believes that the defense budget cuts in the wake of the Budget Control Act (aka sequestration) — $489 billion and counting — are putting the nation at risk. He says reduced funding is hurting Army combat training, forcing Navy ship maintenance delays and extending deployments while compromising modernization. 

When he worked for Romney alongside his dad, a defense realist, the plan was to boost Navy shipbuilding, align with Israel on Iran and arm Syria’s rebels. While slashing the civil service, the father-son team eyed expanded force structures, reversing the cuts of 100,000 military personnel. 

Plenty disagree with that approach — while others think the cuts don’t go far enough. The Zakheim approach flies in the face of liberal policy analysts like Matthew Duss, who argue that America should support overseas democracies through restraint, not force. A plurality of Americans believe the country spends too much on defense already, according to a February Gallup poll

Roger’s view? “The budget as it stands today, and its allocation to defense, is absolutely not aligned with the security environment.” And even some in the GOP don’t agree; some tea partyers want to cut defense spending as well. 

Donald Rumsfeld (L) listens to Dr. Dov Zakheim (R), sitting and speaking together

CNAS’s Eighth Annual National Security Conference with Roger Zakheim at left

Source Getty

These differences come down to politics, an arena Roger knows well; he is, after all, a “Beltway kid.” A photo atop his desk shows a 7-year-old Roger watching as Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, gives his dad an award. Mom, brothers and even his grandfather are in the photo. “That kind of gives a good sense of my upbringing … and exposure to the world of national security,” Roger tells OZY.

His dad was an obvious source of inspiration, but he also names Cal Ripken and an obscure UNC basketball player named Donald Williams among his heroes, and he looks no further than Reagan for presidential perfection.

Even those who disagree with his policy or politics respect where Roger is on the issues and how he got there.

— Dan Bryant, chair of law firm Covington & Burling’s public policy and government affairs

After law school at NYU, Roger took an unconventional path straight to Capitol Hill. It was a world he began navigating as a kid, age 14, when he interned for U.S. Rep. Ben Gilman. He’s been hooked by the interaction between law and public policy ever since.

Zakheim Sr.’s connections “got me to first base, but I had to get to second and third on my own,” Roger says, noting that he spent a lot of time knocking on doors. Obviously, some whispers of nepotism are inevitable — he has gone far for someone under 40, no matter how driven.

He ascended the ranks to become general counsel and deputy staff director of the HASC, successfully leading defense authorization bills through Congress. He’s also been involved in the committee’s work on the Military Commissions Act; “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation; Authorization for the Use of Military Force; oversight of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as counterterrorism operations.

Roger, unlike his father, was optimistic about U.S. chances for helping rebuild Iraq; current efforts in the country also garner his approval, but more reservedly. “I support the current effort to the extent it weakens ISIS,” he says, noting that no strategy is complete without a plan to target militants in Syria as well. 

I think Roger will be viewed by future Republican administrations as the go-to person.

— Dan Bryant

His work on the Hill has been largely bipartisan, requiring coordination across the aisle, and he’s successfully navigated between Congress, the intelligence community and the various combatant commands without ruffling feathers. “Even those who disagree with his policy or politics respect where Roger is on the issues and how he got there,” says Dan Bryant, chair of Covington & Burling’s public policy and government affairs, the law firm where Roger now works, building the firm’s national security practice while enjoying a non-civil servant salary.

Some might question Roger’s ability to impact public policy now that he’s off the Hill, but the young lawyer is still striving to shape the national discussion. When he’s not at his firm or chasing one of his four daughters, Roger serves as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writes op-eds about the need to boost defense spending. But his biggest contribution of late is the Reagan National Defense Forum, which he helped launch last year. 

4 persons on stage sitting and speaking at stage

Source Center for New American Security (CNAS)

The “Davos of Defense,” Roger’s pet name for it, invites stakeholders from throughout the defense community to gather at the Reagan Foundation Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, to discuss everything from Asia’s rebalancing to wounded warrior programs. He wants the forum to be a place where defense officials escape Beltway politics and reset priorities. 

“There seems to be a bipartisan consensus where we should be at the very least at [defense spending] levels prior to the Budget Control Act,” he says, noting that many Democrats and Republicans see nearly eye to eye. “I think that’s a reflection of the crisis and the challenges we’re facing overseas … there’s recognition that we need to correct our current course.”

So Roger is staying very much in the mix and helping frame national defense discussions with 2016 right around the corner. Colleagues and mentors believe he is likely to be on the radar of any hawkish GOP candidates.

“I think Roger will be viewed by future Republican administrations as the go-to person” on defense, says Bryant. For now, though, he’s waiting to see who runs on the next GOP ticket — he’d dearly love to have a candidate as dedicated to defense as his childhood hero: Reagan.

In the meantime, there’s bound to be lots of lively discussion around the Zakheim dinner table.

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