- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The transition team for President-elect Donald Trump has yet to reach out to the Pentagon to start managing the transfer of power following his surprise Election Day victory, though two defense officials told Foreign Policy they expect the first meetings as early as next week.
Initial discussions will likely consist of Pentagon officials delivering a short briefing on major issues facing the military, and then working to provide any information and intelligence Trump demands while the incoming team is identified and gets brought up to speed.
Trump also began receiving detailed classified briefings from the CIA on Wednesday.
The meetings have the potential to be awkward, given Trump’s claims that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals running the war, declarations that the U.S. officer corps has been “reduced to rubble,” and threatening to find “different generals” to fight the Islamic State. He has also repeatedly been dismissive of the U.S. intelligence community and its work.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a memo to Pentagon staff calling for an orderly process to hand over the reigns of the U.S. armed forces to a new group of Trump appointees.
“I am committed to overseeing the orderly transition to the next commander in chief,” Carter wrote in the Wednesday memo. “I know I can count on you to execute all your duties with the excellence our citizens know they can expect.”
Secretary of State John Kerry did the same, writing he expects diplomats and other staffers to “welcome our incoming colleagues warmly and professionally, and to provide them with all the assistance they need to ensure a seamless transition from one administration to the next.”
While the grinding work of shuffling personnel in and out of the Pentagon will be hashed out soon by batallions of staffers, the question of who will set atop the Defense Department’s civilian leadership hangs over the entire process.
Among Washington-based defense experts, early Trump supporter Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is the front-runner to be nominated as the next Secretary of Defense. Also in the rumint mix is Stephen Hadley, who served as national security advisor to President George W. Bush, and former Sen. Jim Talent, (R-Mo.). Sessions has led Trump’s national security advisory committee since March, and sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Other names that are being bandied about for top national security positions at the White House and in the Pentagon include a host of conservative politicians like former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and onetime CIA chief James Woolsey.
But talk of transition team schedules and playing Washington parlor games over who might get the nod for the big job obscures the most important priority for military planners: namely, clarifying just what the Trump administration’s top national security priorities will be.
There are currently about 13,000 American troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Beijing has pushed its territorial claims further into the South China Sea. Russia continues to place pressure on NATO allies in Eastern Europe. And while the war against the Islamic State received fleeting attention during the presidential campaign, Trump has said he would be willing to work with Russia to strike the group — a plan that has alarmed NATO members in Eastern Europe looking for more pressure to be placed on Moscow.
While the incoming Trump administration toys with the idea of reaching out to Moscow — despite Russian aircraft having buzzed U.S. Navy ships and aircraft during several recent incidents — Russian forces may be taking advantage of the confusion in Washington to hammer rebel forces battling Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, accompanied by several warships equipped with cruise missiles, moved into position off the Syrian coast this week. A defense official confirmed to FP that at least one Russian carrier-based airplane had already flown a mission near Aleppo.
The official, who would only speak about military operations under the condition of anonymity, said Moscow appears to be “more interested in the world seeing Russia’s naval capabilities in action than the world seeing Russia live up to its word” to work toward a political solution to end Syria’s five-year civil war.
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