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The Trials of Patrick Shanahan

After months of uncertainty, Trump’s acting defense secretary is making his presence felt inside the administration.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan delivers remarks at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 9. (Department of Defense photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan delivers remarks at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 9. (Department of Defense photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Since he took the reins of the U.S. Defense Department from James Mattis on Jan. 1, Patrick Shanahan has been, at best, stuck in limbo. Shanahan found both his competence and his ethics questioned on Capitol Hill, amid grumbling over his management style at the Pentagon.

Yet after a bruising 106 days as acting defense secretary, Shanahan is not only still standing, but he is also making a real imprint on Trump administration policy. Sources close to him say he is driving a tougher posture on Turkey and heightening a focus on competing with China on 5G telephony, among other changes. And while Shanahan drew fire during congressional hearings, he avoided any major foreign-policy gaffes, even as he dove right into thorny global affairs issues to address questions about his policy chops.

Perhaps more important to his future at the Pentagon, Shanahan is bringing a new negotiating style to the job, leveraging his experience as a business executive in ways that his bellicose boss can’t fail to appreciate. “He’s a tough customer,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “He demands performance.”

There are new signs President Donald Trump will ultimately tap Shanahan as permanent secretary of defense. Shanahan has won the critical support of Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who previously compared him unfavorably to Mattis. Inhofe told Foreign Policy he would “welcome” Shanahan’s nomination after the investigation wraps up.

But in the meantime, Shanahan said he is focused on running the department.

“I’m doing the job. I get up every morning thinking about the Department,” Shanahan said in an emailed statement to FP. “I’m focused on our service members and civilians and their families. I’m focused on our military operations all over the world. I’m not focused on a title.”

Indeed, Shanahan is not waiting to begin making key decisions, sources close to him say. In negotiations with Turkey over an advanced U.S. weapons system, the F-35 fighter jet, Shanahan drove a tougher stance, said one senior administration official with direct knowledge of the discussions. Ankara, which is set to receive its first F-35s on Turkish soil this summer, is stubbornly refusing to scrap plans to purchase a Russian air defense system, the S-400, that U.S. and European officials see as a threat to the aircraft.

Shanahan met with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at the Pentagon on Tuesday, a day after Trump himself huddled with Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak to discuss the issue. As an alternative to the S-400, the U.S. government has offered Ankara a deal on Raytheon’s Patriot missile system.

The administration official said Shanahan, a businessman who spent 30 years at Boeing, looks at the problem through a lens of economic leverage. Removing Ankara from the F-35 program would be a significant blow to Turkey’s defense and aerospace industry, which stands to lose as much as $12 billion in F-35 industrial opportunities. By contrast, for the United States and other F-35 partners, the impact is “very manageable,” the official said, noting that Turkey’s piece of the program—Turkish companies manufacture several key components of the plane—can be replaced.

“He recognizes the full set of levers that can be applied to try and get the problem solved,” the official said. “There is a way for us to work together where they can get the Patriot system that they need to have for their own defense requirements and maintain the F-35.”

The Trump administration, including Mattis, previously urged Congress not to bar Turkey, a NATO ally, from receiving the F-35 over the S-400 missile system purchase, arguing that doing so would result in delays and higher costs for the Lockheed Martin jet.

But the U.S. position, at least in public, shifted in the last few months. Top officials, including Gen. Tod Wolters, Trump’s nominee to be the next supreme allied commander of NATO and the head of U.S. European Command, stated unequivocally in recent weeks that if Turkey purchases the S-400, it should not get the F-35.

U.S. officials say the integration of the S-400 with the F-35 and NATO air defenses could compromise closely guarded military secrets. The risk is that Moscow could gain valuable intelligence on the F-35’s technical systems.

“We all understand that Turkey is an important ally in the region, but it’s absolutely unsustainable to support co-location of an F-35 and S-400,” Wolters told Congress in an April hearing.

In the acting role, Shanahan is also driving the department’s increased focus on 5G wireless communications technology, the administration official said. The Trump administration has recently sounded the alarm on China’s domination of the 5G market with firms including Huawei. The Pentagon will be rolling out new initiatives, such as providing funding to U.S. companies working on 5G technology, in the coming weeks, the official said.

“1G, 2G, 3G, 4G were all U.S.- and Western-controlled. 5G is clearly being contested,” the official said. “If we are going to enjoy the type of trusted telecommunications infrastructure, which we’ve quite frankly taken for granted, we have to lead this and be out front.”

Shanahan’s critics say that even if he gets cleared by the Pentagon inspector general, which is conducting an investigation into whether he inappropriately favored his former employer as deputy secretary of defense, he still lacks the foreign-policy experience needed for the top job.  

“The kind of person you want in that top position is somebody who has a broader policy when it comes to U.S. national security issues, the armed services, not just somebody who has been with a big military contractor,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, in an interview with FP.

“That’s fine for the No. 2, but it’s not the kind of person I’d be looking for in the secretary of defense spot.”

Yet those close to Shanahan say as Mattis’s deputy, he got a crash course in global affairs. He received hundreds of intelligence briefings in that position, starting with three a week and graduating to five, according to two defense officials. He chaired multiple Pentagon task forces, including the group responsible for standing up the Space Force. He also played a key role in developing the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon’s capstone strategic guidance, as well as reviews of the department’s nuclear, cybersecurity, and missile defense portfolios.

Shanahan was particularly “critical” to the development of the National Defense Strategy, which aims to shift the Pentagon’s focus away from counterterrorism in the Middle East and toward great power competition with China and Russia, said Elbridge Colby, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018, was one of the primary authors of the document.

In addition, Shanahan filled in for Mattis whenever he traveled outside Washington. As deputy, Shanahan visited the White House 61 times and developed relationships with the president and other key national security players, including National Security Advisor John Bolton.

So when Shanahan took over from Mattis on Jan. 1, he already had a handle on the top national security issues, the officials said.

“It was more learning the Pentagon bureaucracy than geopolitics,” said one defense official.

In the acting role, Shanahan leans heavily on Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is “more the traditional model” compared to Mattis’s approach, said another defense official. Shanahan and Dunford touch base virtually every day, the official said.

In his relationship with the president, too, Shanahan has adopted a different model compared to his predecessor, who sometimes sought to moderate or change Trump’s policies.

“Shanahan starts from the position that [Trump] is the commander in chief and that you’ve got to understand the president’s vision and his intent, and you’ve got to go make that happen,” said the first defense official. “He is starting from a position of ‘yes.’”

Shanahan’s deference to Trump in his previous position has led some to criticize him as a “yes man” who will not challenge the president on key issues. But Punaro, the former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director, pushed back on that characterization, saying that he expects Shanahan, like Mattis, to give the president his best advice—but that doesn’t mean the commander in chief has to take it.

In fact, Shanahan might have a better chance at convincing the president than Mattis did by the end of his tenure. The administration official noted that Trump and Shanahan have a “shared language in terms of corporate America.” Coming from the business world, Shanahan “understands that the president thinks like a CEO,” and that as Pentagon chief his job is to stay “one or two steps” ahead of the boss.

“Your management teams should be helping you manage by being out in front of issues and providing you options,” the official said.

That strategy has served Shanahan well in dealing with problems like Syria, the official said. Amid the confusion that stemmed from Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops from the country, and then his partial reversal, the acting secretary has tried to walk the line between carrying out the president’s orders and relaying America’s Syria policy to allies.

One major point of contention is how to repatriate Islamic State foreign fighters, from Europe and elsewhere, or fund detention centers to hold them long-term. Shanahan is working to get European allies to contribute more to the effort, the official said, contrasting his approach to previous strategies.

“[He’s saying] ‘We’ve got to do X, your share of X is Y, this is what I need.’ Which is different than the typical approach of ‘Tell us what you want to contribute,’” the official said.

“I think he’s having very honest conversations with them, what I would describe as pragmatist, realist conversations.”

Punaro compared Shanahan to William Perry, an engineer and businessman who served as secretary of defense under former President Bill Clinton. Despite his relative lack of policy experience, he said, Shanahan may be the best man for the job.

“In this administration and in this White House, you need somebody that can work with the White House,” Punaro said. Shanahan “is the most capable, current and ready to go.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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