How Shanahan May End up as Permanent Pentagon Chief
The US military is about to pull most troops out of Syria, seems set to slash its Afghanistan presence, and is engaged in a contentious mission on the border with Mexico.
Yet the job of overseeing these momentous policies remains vacant — and President Donald Trump’s interim pick is under fire from Republican lawmakers.
The role is being filled by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who was the Pentagon’s number two until Jim Mattis quit in December over Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision.
Shanahan has made no secret that he’d like to be the next full-on “SecDef” — as defense secretaries are known in the Pentagon — but nearly two months into the job, his prospects were called into question this week amid reports of a spat with top US senators over Syria.
Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan hosted Belgian Defense Minister Didier Reynders yesterday at the Pentagon for additional discussion from last week’s @NATO and #DefeatISIS mtg @MunSecConf. Readout here: https://t.co/lPTbfAiNSi pic.twitter.com/TD0mR2pbH8
— Charles E. Summers, Jr. (@ChiefPentSpox) February 22, 2019
According to The Washington Post, influential Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked Shanahan at a Munich security summit if he had told European allies the US troop presence in Syria would be zero by April 30. “Yes, that’s been our direction,” Shanahan reportedly said. “That’s the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard,” Graham responded.
Shanahan wanted to convince allies to maintain a troop presence in Syria after the US pulls out, but struggled to persuade other countries why they should risk their forces with America gone. Graham went on to tell Shanahan that if Trump’s Syria withdrawal policy endured, “I am now your adversary.” A US official told AFP that Graham’s outrage was aimed more at Trump’s Syria withdrawal plans than it was at Shanahan himself.
Graham is well-known for his rhetorical flourishes and selective indignation, and Shanahan on Thursday insisted he thinks of him as an “ally.” “We have shared interests, he is a problem solver and I am very confident we will come together with solutions for Syria,” Shanahan told Pentagon reporters.
Senator Jim Inhofe, another senior Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also expressed reservations about Shanahan, and his lack of foreign policy chops got him in hot water with the late Senator John McCain. At Shanahan’s confirmation hearing, a testy McCain said a lack of detail in some of his foreign policy answers was “almost insulting.” Despite all this, experts predict Shanahan, 58, will end up as Trump’s nominee for defense secretary anyway. “Last man standing,” Loren Thompson, an expert at the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia, told AFP. “Once you eliminate all the other candidates, it’s Shanahan by default.” Several high-profile names have been floated in Washington circles, including Graham and fellow Republican Senator Tom Cotton.
But why give up a powerful Senate seat when you’ve seen Trump chew up then spit out a string of top-level officials — including former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and former White House chief of staff John Kelly? Additionally, running for a senior government position requires appointees to cut business ties and divest themselves of any stocks that might be seen as causing a conflict. For many an aspiring SecDef, it’s simply not worth it. “There are both personal and structural uncertainties associated with taking the Pentagon’s top job,” Thompson noted. “The president’s personality might lead him to lose his affinity” for a Pentagon chief, he added.
For now, Shanahan remains in Trump’s good books in part because he is not like his predecessor Mattis, who often pushed back against the president. While critics have said Shanahan may to be too much of a rubber stamp for Trump, being a faithful advocate for the president’s policies will help him stay in the job. And besides, the defense secretary’s role is to implement a president’s agenda. “If you’re part of a cabinet and you have views that you can’t reconcile with the executive …. you have two choices,” David Johnson, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told AFP. “Either you change your perspective or you resign — and that’s what Mattis did.