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At the World’s Most Important Building, No One Is Minding the Store

The Pentagon is adrift and the entire world may pay the consequences.
June 20, 2019
At the World’s Most Important Building, No One Is Minding the Store
(Gettyimages / Shutterstock)

Patrick Shanahan, who was the acting secretary of defense and the nominee to fill the position, suddenly resigned on Tuesday. Early reports suggest that there won’t be hearings for a new nominee any time soon.

So here is where we’re at:

We have neither a secretary nor a deputy secretary of defense. The secretary of the Army, who has very little background in strategy—his previous government position was a sixth-degree deputy assistant secretary—is now the acting secretary. And just for good measure, the secretary of the Air Force post is also vacant.

It gets worse.

As of now, the leading candidate for the top job at defense seems to be Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, who misled the Congress during his hearings on his ties with pro-Confederate groups and whose first job was working for the late Senator Jesse Helms. One of the most important tasks of the secretary of defense is working with the Congress over the department’s budget. If Wilkie is confirmed after a contentious confirmation process, how enthusiastic will congressional Democrats be about working with him?

It gets worse, still.

The current secretary of the Navy has zero strategy background and came from the private sector. We don’t have an undersecretary for readiness and personnel as services are failing to meet their recruitment goals and are struggling with retention more than ever. We don’t have an assistant secretary for international security affairs which concerns the Middle East and European security—even as tensions with Iran are rising and Russia is trying to test deterrence in Europe while the president publicly undermines NATO.

America’s security is in jeopardy and no one is minding the store. Literally.

The fight over the National Defense Authorization Act is coming up. It was scheduled to pass in August. For the first time in several years, John McCain won’t be there to help pass it with bipartisan and overwhelming support. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and his Senate counterpart, Chairman James Inhofe, have very different visions, especially on nuclear weapons, where Smith is trying to remove the ground-based leg of the triad (that’s the three-prong approach to nuclear weapons that America has employed for the last few generations, in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know what the triad is).

Neither Smith nor Inhofe are easy to work with in the best of times. This year there will be no McCain to grease the wheels and Jim Mattis is gone, too. People underestimate how critical Mattis was in garnering Democratic support for the NDAA because no president has ever been distrusted more—by members of both parties—on national security.

It remains to be seen how the NDAA negotiations will work this summer. Or if they will work at all.

The post-Cold War world has been a blessing for America. While not without challenges, it has been a relatively peaceful and prosperous time. The United States has benefited from this order because it has created it, and to a large degree enforced it, according to its own interest.

The most important element of this order has been the United States military, which deterred state-actors. Most conflicts were kept isolated and were stabilized relatively quickly. In the exceptions to this rule, we’ve seen just how crucial the post-Cold War stability has been: When the U.S. failed to put an end to the conflict in Syria, that war created a migrant crisis which in turn caused massive dysfunction in European societies and politics.

But the order has required a great deal of protection and grooming, which the United States military is critical for. These quiet tasks will not be done competently without careful and organized military strategies created and enforced by the civilians at the Department of Defense.

We are two and a half years into the Trump administration and many of these senior positions have not been filled. Two of the respected leaders in the Department, Secretaries Mattis and Heather Wilson of the Air Force, both left the government because they believed the administration was headed in the wrong direction.

The crisis we now face at defense is not a result of Shanahan’s sudden departure. He was hardly the right man for the job. He himself had no background in defense policy and strategy and received the then-SASC Chairman McCain’s cautious support only after Mattis’s assurance. Shanahan came from the private sector to change the business model of the department. At Boeing, he was in charge of the commercial aviation side and not military aviation.

Even Mattis’s departure didn’t create the crisis, since he also left many of these positions unfilled, didn’t use the filled ones much, and couldn’t resist his Marine bias as the secretary—most of the decisions were made by Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dunford behind closed doors with little input from the department. That kind of behavior was expected, and that’s why there is a law against having military leaders as secretaries of defense. But the Senate agreed to make an exception for Mattis because they were terrified of having a defense secretary too weak to stand up to this president’s impulses—this was Mattis’s hardest and most important task, which he fulfilled better than anybody else would have.

No, the root of the crisis is the commander-in-chief who has demonstrated in every other aspect of his administration that he either will not, or cannot, run the executive branch in a functional manner.

We are in the midst of a crisis with Iran. North Korea is getting everything it ever wanted from America. There is a trade war with China that is alienating American allies both near and far. The Russian government took an active role in selecting America’s current president. And that’s just the first two and a half years. Just because the wheels have not fallen off the cart yet does not mean that they are not wobbly.

To believe that our adversaries will not look at the totality of this dysfunction and try to take advantage of an orphaned military is a wish, not a strategy, especially now that the “impulsive president” and “strategic ambiguity” element is fading and our adversaries understand Trump’s game.

This is not how the most powerful country in history should operate.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.