Short-term Pen­tagon lead­er­ship un­set­tling

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY BEN WOLF­GANG AND LAU­REN MEIER

Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ci­sion to slowwalk the in­stal­la­tion of a per­ma­nent de­fense sec­re­tary, cou­pled with an ob­scure fed­eral staffing law, has left the Pen­tagon poised to get its fourth leader in just the past six months — all while mil­i­tary ten­sions be­tween the U.S. and Iran re­main at a boil­ing point and a mas­sive de­fense pol­icy bill is mak­ing its way through Congress.

Act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark T. Esper, who took over two weeks ago and has been nom­i­nated for the per­ma­nent post, will soon have to re­lin­quish the po­si­tion. Fed­eral law bars nom­i­nees from serv­ing in an act­ing ca­pac­ity as they go through the Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion process.

The lat­est shake-up likely will leave Navy Sec­re­tary Richard V. Spencer, who spent the bet­ter part of the past three decades in the pri­vate fi­nance sec­tor, run­ning day-to-day oper­a­tions for the world’s largest mil­i­tary. Mr. Spencer would fol­low Mr. Esper, for­mer Boe­ing ex­ec­u­tive Patrick M. Shana­han and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mat­tis as heads of the Pen­tagon in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion just since the end of De­cem­ber.

Law­mak­ers and other Capi­tol Hill sources are deeply frus­trated by such in­sta­bil­ity, and an­a­lysts say the White House could have avoided the chaos eas­ily by pick­ing a per­ma­nent re­place­ment soon af­ter Mr. Mat­tis’ res­ig­na­tion in De­cem­ber. In­stead, the next de­fense chief will come on board just as the 2020 elec­tion sea­son heats up, leav­ing lit­tle time to push new poli­cies or make sub­stan­tive changes in­side the Pen­tagon, an­a­lysts and mil­i­tary ob­servers say.

“What it means in terms of civil­ian plan­ning and man­age­ment — they will grind to a halt,” said Mark Can­cian, a se­nior ad­viser with the In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies and a retired Marine Corps colonel.

“You’re not go­ing to see any ma­jor ini­tia­tives ei­ther com­ing out or mov­ing ahead un­til you get some sta­ble lead­er­ship,” he said. “Even then, by the time they get on board, they’ll have one year, a lit­tle more, un­til the elec­tion. Ba­si­cally, this is it for man­age­ment change, strat­egy change in the Depart­ment of De­fense.”

Some of Mr. Trump’s al­lies on Capi­tol Hill con­cede that the pres­i­dent’s strat­egy of keep­ing act­ing of­fi­cials in place for months dam­ages the gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity, par­tic­u­larly at a top Cabi­net post such as de­fense sec­re­tary.

Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man James M. In­hofe, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, long has ar­gued that act­ing de­fense chiefs sim­ply don’t carry the same pol­icy heft on the in­ter­na­tional stage and lack the author­ity that comes with a per­ma­nent, Se­nate-con­firmed sec­re­tary who speaks un­mis­tak­ably for the pres­i­dent.

Mr. In­hofe told The Wash­ing­ton Times that he be­lieves Mr. Esper — who served as Army sec­re­tary and as an ex­ec­u­tive at Raytheon and held a va­ri­ety of roles on Capi­tol Hill — is likely to be con­firmed eas­ily, per­haps as soon as next month.

“Every­one knows him, and that makes it a lot eas­ier. So I’m an­tic­i­pat­ing the very min­i­mum time that is re­quired that we’ll get that done,” he said. “We’re on the road to get­ting it done.”

Le­gal and mil­i­tary an­a­lysts say it’s crucial that Mr. In­hofe and his Se­nate col­leagues move as quickly as pos­si­ble.

“If con­fir­ma­tion gets de­layed, it would send all the wrong mes­sages not just in­ter­nally to DoD and the troops, but also to the wider world as well,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Dun­lap, now the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Law, Ethics and Na­tional Se­cu­rity at Duke Univer­sity. “We es­pe­cially need to avoid giv­ing any ad­ver­saries the no­tion there is a lead­er­ship vac­uum to ex­ploit.”

Tur­moil ahead

But there is no avoiding even more tur­moil. The Fed­eral Va­can­cies Re­form Act of 1998 says a per­son cannot serve as an act­ing sec­re­tary while un­der­go­ing con­fir­ma­tion for the per­ma­nent post.

The same law would have forced Mr. Shana­han to step aside tem­po­rar­ily be­fore his con­fir­ma­tion process, and it will re­sult in the same fate for Mr. Esper. In June, shortly af­ter Mr. Trump fi­nally said he planned to nom­i­nate Mr. Shana­han per­ma­nently for the post, Mr. Shana­han with­drew, cit­ing per­sonal fam­ily mat­ters.

When Mr. Esper tem­po­rar­ily re­signs, Mr. Spencer likely will take over on an in­terim ba­sis. A Con­necti­cut na­tive and a Marine Corps vet­eran, Mr. Spencer left ac­tive mil­i­tary duty in 1981 and went to work in the pri­vate fi­nance sec­tor.

He will thus join a line of his­tor­i­cal heavy­weights who have held the top job at the Pen­tagon, in­clud­ing George Mar­shall, Robert McNa­mara, Dick Cheney and Robert Gates.

Mr. Spencer spent 16 years on Wall Street be­fore be­com­ing man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Fall Creek Man­age­ment, a Wy­oming in­vest­ment firm, in 2007, ac­cord­ing to his of­fi­cial Navy bi­og­ra­phy. He spent 10 years at the com­pany be­fore he was sworn in as Navy sec­re­tary in Au­gust 2017.

Mr. Spencer has kept a rel­a­tively low pro­file over the past 18 months. In June, how­ever, he is­sued a pointed re­minder against po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion to Navy per­son­nel, echo­ing a warn­ing Mr. Shana­han had is­sued be­fore his un­ex­pected exit.

Mr. Spencer re­leased the memo af­ter U.S. sailors were pho­tographed sport­ing patches that read “Make Air­crew Great Again” with a like­ness of Pres­i­dent Trump, and af­ter some Navy per­son­nel courted con­tro­versy by dis­cussing with the White House plans to hide the USS John S. McCain from the pres­i­dent’s view in May.

“Now that elec­tion sea­son is ap­proach­ing, it is ap­pro­pri­ate for us to re­mem­ber that, as mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­als, we are an apo­lit­i­cal body and our mem­bers cannot par­tic­i­pate in ac­tiv­i­ties that could ap­pear to im­ply spon­sor­ship, ap­proval, or en­dorse­ment of a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date, cam­paign or cause,” the sec­re­tary wrote in the June 19 memo.

Mean­while, Mr. Esper has tried to project power on the world stage. He trav­eled to Brussels last week for a key meet­ing of NATO de­fense min­is­ters and has fielded ques­tions about grow­ing ten­sions be­tween the U.S. and Iran.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been prod­ding Ger­many, France and other NATO mem­ber gov­ern­ments to fol­low Wash­ing­ton’s lead and reim­pose harsh eco­nomic sanc­tions on Iran, and Mr. Esper has been the point man in ne­go­ti­a­tions with his for­eign coun­ter­parts.

He also has had to re­as­sure al­lies that the un­cer­tainty at the top of the Pen­tagon does not mean Amer­i­can pol­icy pri­or­i­ties have changed.

“I made clear to the team that I did want to come to NATO and meet with my fel­low de­fense min­is­ters to con­vey some key points to them,” he told re­porters. “One is that this tran­si­tion is sim­ply a change in lead­er­ship. It’s not a change in mis­sion, it’s not a change in pri­or­i­ties and it’s not a change in the United States’ com­mit­ment to NATO.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mark T. Esper, who be­came act­ing de­fense sec­re­tary over two weeks ago, will have to step down while he goes through the Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion process for a per­ma­nent po­si­tion, mean­ing the Pen­tagon will have a fourth leader since the end of De­cem­ber.

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