The Military’s New Boss Is Walking Into an Ambush
Donald Trump has picked a former CEO to run the Pentagon. He should have gone with a psychiatrist.
It’s at once entirely fair and entirely absurd to ask if Patrick Shanahan, soon to be acting U.S. secretary of defense, is up to his new job. It’s fair because Shanahan’s prior experience as an executive at Boeing hasn’t necessarily equipped him with the skills and knowledge traditionally considered to be required to run the Pentagon. It’s absurd because at the present moment, the only skill that matters is the ability to placate a mercurial and emotional president—and it’s not clear, by that standard, whether there’s anyone at all who would be qualified.
Consider, first, Shanahan’s resume. For much of his life, he had only one employer: a major defense contractor. That experience gives him management skills, some say. And, to be sure, the deputy secretary’s job is management of the Pentagon and its processes.
But the Pentagon is not Boeing. At a company, orders can be given and followed; policymaking is top-down, as Shanahan demonstrated when called on by management to fix an ailing Dreamliner program. Politics in a federal government agency are of a different kind. At the Department of Defense, there are many independent power centers—the collection of armed services chiefs is a big one—that have to be cajoled for defense secretaries to achieve their goals. As one former secretary of defense told me at the start of his tenure: “If I don’t have the Chiefs with me, I can’t run the building.” Outside power centers like the White House have to be worked behind the scenes; Congress has to be flattered and persuaded. Respect has to be earned everywhere.
Unlike for CEOs, defense secretaries’ day-to-day responsibility is rarely to run the department itself. Instead, their job is to be the face of the Pentagon to the rest of the world—other federal agencies, the public, allies, and adversaries—through interagency and White House meetings on policy, congressional testimony, overseas travel, media appearances, and international negotiations. The White House relationship is a particularly important role for the defense secretary, who is one of the four principal national security policy advisors to the president, along with the national security advisor, the secretary of state, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This is a task for which departing Secretary of Defense James Mattis was well prepared through decades of military service, including overseas command in Afghanistan and Iraq, leadership of the military’s Central Command, and a turn as NATO commander for defense transformation.
Shanahan’s biography reveals no background appropriate to this policy advisor role. He has never served in positions with responsibility for defense policy, politics, or international relations. But that is a big part of his job, at least on paper. The jury is even out on his basic management skill set. Early reports about his tenure at the Pentagon suggest he has had high staff turnover and tensions with several of the armed services.
But all this discussion makes it sound like Shanahan will be operating in a normal administration. He will not. We are talking about Trumpland, a parallel universe of strange vectors and unpredictable beasts, where only one’s relationship with the ruler behind the curtain matters. As Mattis’s experience reveals, President Donald Trump’s White House is not one that relishes back-and-forth policy discussions or disagreement from department heads. And the disagreements can go deep and have serious implications for national security, including issues like overseas military exercises (as in South Korea) and the deployment and redeployment of forces (as in Syria). One false step and Shanahan may be history, like a growing list of other senior officials in this administration.
Trump clearly likes firing people and replacing them with yes men and women—people for whom loyalty comes before patriotism, good sense, or, often, good policy. After the departures of Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and chief of staff John Kelly, will Shanahan be the next victim?
As deputy, most of Shanahan’s challenges until now have been inside the Pentagon. The only task that has required him to have close White House ties has been the president’s order to create a controversial new military service for space. Shanahan has reportedly made the creation of a Space Force a high priority, which suggests he may be attuned to his master’s voice.
But Shanahan’s status as acting secretary suggests an audition, a kind of probation testing for good behavior. (It’s a status also recently awarded to the new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.) Trump’s message seems to be: You serve at my pleasure, and when I am done with you, the departure may be as sudden as the going-away Henry VIII gave Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Supine and fawning submission, of the sort we saw at that famous cabinet meeting in June 2017 (notably excepting Mattis), is what the president will expect of his next secretary. (As King Lear said to the Earl of Kent, when he banished his most loyal—and dissenting—advisor, the next secretary had better not “come betwixt our sentence and our power.”)
Yet fulfilling Trump’s pleasure is likely to be a monumental challenge for Shanahan, as it would be for anybody with a modicum of independence. Mattis, for instance, had a hard time straddling the gap between fulfilling the needs of an impulsive and relatively uninformed chief executive and the requirements of good policy and the stroking of allies. His answer was to slow-roll impulsive decisions: an order to deny transgender Americans the opportunity to serve in the military, a Soviet-like military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, the creation of an independent military force for space operations, the stand-down of military exercises in South Korea, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and arming soldiers at the U.S. border. With the order to immediately leave Syria, Mattis had had enough and delivered his resignation—only for Trump to push him out the door.
Shanahan’s paramount task as he watches Mattis recede into the fog is going to be to give Trump the complete loyalty he desires and demonstrate an error-free ability to do exactly what the president asks him to do. For the near-term future of U.S. foreign policy, that does not bode well. Troops will be deployed or withdrawn in the United States and abroad with alacrity and no consultation. International confrontations will happen at lightning speed. Budget totals will be manipulated by the president on whim, without planning. Political calculation and the next election will dance at the edge of every Trump decision. Shanahan may be glad that, as acting secretary, he is not someone who will be called upon by Congress to publicly discuss his own views on policy; daylight with the White House could be fatal.
For some of America’s finest journalists, Shanahan’s first task is seen as “repairing the relationship” between the military and the White House. That assumes that the relationship can look anything like the normal back-and-forth between the Pentagon and the executive. The traffic appears to move only one way in this abnormal White House—top down. Job one for Shanahan is to learn to take a knee, not to advocate the department’s point of view, a requirement Mattis clearly got tired of filling. The problem he will face is that the policies and actions of this president are impulsive, ill-informed, and sometimes dangerous or even, as former Tillerson suggested, illegal.
The nation is dealing with an abnormal relationship between what Trump wants and what may best serve the nation’s interests, as seen by Department heads. This is particularly true in the foreign-policy arena, where the president’s impulses have revealed little understanding of the world. Actions like walking away from the nuclear agreement with Iran or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty call for a debate they are not likely to have. Debating these decisions on policy grounds, for which Shanahan lacks the background in any case, is a high risk in this White House. Saying “yes” and then slow-rolling implementation cost Mattis his job; Shanahan will be watched closely to keep that from happening.
Patrick Shanahan’s choice is simple: take the knee and implement obviously mistaken policies quickly, or be ready to take a walk. It’s a position unlike any he will ever have faced at Boeing. We’ll soon know how he deals with it.