The Pentagon Is Finally Getting a New Defense Secretary

The long-awaited appointment of Patrick Shanahan allows Pentagon leaders to finally move forward on filling key positions.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks to reporters during a flight from El Paso, Texas, after visiting the southern U.S. border on Feb. 23.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks to reporters during a flight from El Paso, Texas, after visiting the southern U.S. border on Feb. 23. DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

After more than four months as acting U.S. defense secretary, the longest anyone has served in that position, Patrick Shanahan will be formally nominated to become President Donald Trump’s permanent Pentagon chief. Shanahan would replace James Mattis, who resigned in December over Trump’s decision—since reversed—to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria.

“Based on his outstanding service to the country and his demonstrated ability to lead, President Trump intends to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Secretary of Defense,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in a statement on Thursday. “Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job.”

The long-awaited appointment comes after the Pentagon’s inspector general conclusively cleared Shanahan of violating his ethics agreement after accusations that he inappropriately favored his former employer, Boeing.

“You rarely get as clean a clearance from the [inspector general] as he got, and not only him as an individual but the internal processes in the Pentagon also got gold stars,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Shanahan must still be confirmed by the Senate. But despite a fallout with Sen. Lindsey Graham over withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and a series of rocky performances on Capitol Hill, it seems lawmakers are coming around to the choice. Sen. James Inhofe, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who initially criticized the former Boeing executive, recently signaled his support.  

“I am honored by today’s announcement of President Trump’s intent to nominate,” Shanahan said in a statement. “If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy.  I remain committed to modernizing the force so our remarkable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe.”

From a practical standpoint, Shanahan already has the same legal authority to run the Defense Department as acting defense secretary as he would have in the confirmed role. But his acting status has weakened his hand in more subtle ways.  

“There could be the perception that maybe he won’t be the [defense secretary] permanently, and maybe he does not feel he can act decisively (which is not the case) and maybe he does not have the full support of the President,” Punaro said in an email.

Now, any lingering doubt about Shanahan’s authority has been laid to rest. Shanahan, who if confirmed will likely remain at the helm of the Pentagon until January 2021 at least, is expected to drive continued focus on the growing threat from China and on investing in high-end capabilities such as advanced aircraft, hypersonic weapons, and 5G telephony to counter that threat. Sources close to him say he is also driving a tougher posture on Turkey in the debate over Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system.

Shanahan will also have to grapple with escalating tensions with Iran, as well as the question of what to do with the thousands of Islamic State fighters currently being held by U.S.-backed forces in Syria. Shanahan in February drew Graham’s ire, with the senator exploding that pulling troops from Syria was “the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s not like all of a sudden he will have a magic wand put in his hand that he can wave and get things done, but he does have more authority and more confidence to get out and do something new, because he is not trying out for the job anymore,” said Jim Townsend, a former career Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security.  

Veteran officials say the Pentagon can now return to business as usual. Senior leaders are expected to begin filling key positions that have long been left vacant. The list of senior positions that are vacant or filled on a temporary basis includes deputy secretary of defense, two out of seven undersecretaries of defense, and nearly half the assistant secretaries of defense—among them, the top civilian for international security affairs.

Punaro said he expects that once Shanahan is confirmed, nominees for various Pentagon positions will move quickly through the approval process.

“It is hard to form a cohesive team when you aren’t certain who the leader is going to be. Once Shanahan is confirmed in the top job, subordinate positions can be filled with people who complement the skills of the leader,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute.

There were signs that Trump would nominate Shanahan for the permanent job as far back as February, but the inspector general investigation held up the final decision. The inquiry focused on allegations that Shanahan boosted Boeing during internal Pentagon meetings and made disparaging remarks about Boeing’s competitors, such as Lockheed Martin, and, in particular, Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jet.

Shanahan also faced accusations that he urged the Defense Department to buy Boeing aircraft that the military services did not want, specifically the F/A-18 and F-15X fighter jets, and pressed the U.S. Air Force to accept Boeing’s new KC-46 tanker despite technical problems.

Over the course of the investigation, the inspector general interviewed Shanahan and 33 witnesses, including the most senior officials in the Defense Department, such as Mattis, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military service chiefs, and others. Of those, only Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who has butted heads with Shanahan in the past over the standup of a new Space Force, raised concerns about his behavior.

In the end, the inspector general found that the allegations were not substantiated.

“We determined that Mr. Shanahan fully complied with his ethics agreements and his ethical obligations regarding Boeing and its competitors,” the inspector general report stated.

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

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