Shadow Government

An Acting Secretary of Defense Isn’t Enough

Amid tensions between Washington and Tehran, the U.S. Department of Defense needs a Senate-confirmed leader.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper in Brussels on June 27.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper in Brussels on June 27. Aris Oinomou/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. public is rightfully anxious about U.S. policy on Iran and whether the Trump administration is leading the country toward war in the Persian Gulf. The White House has ricocheted from one policy position to another, which has done nothing but heighten the fear that the president and his advisors do not themselves agree on a course of action. As the Trump team presses for policies that could lead to direct confrontation—and as Iran turns to more aggressive policies, including stockpiling uranium beyond the limits assigned under the 2015 nuclear deal—all we can do is hope the leaders who sit around the Situation Room table know how to handle a mercurial president who does not inspire confidence in his crisis management but instead makes crises worse.

A major player at that table is acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who replaced Patrick Shanahan after he stepped down as acting secretary last month. At a time of international tension and possible conflict, you want the best minds focused on the issue and strong advisors not afraid to tell the president when he is wrong. However, senior leaders in an acting capacity, such as this succession of acting defense secretaries, have the deck stacked against them when it comes to telling truth to power. This is made still worse by President Donald Trump’s management style—he does not seem to be looking for advisors who will say no to him. That’s why there are so many empty positions in his government temporarily filled by acting officials.

Trump seems to have decided that it is easier to compel the bureaucracy to implement his administration’s sometimes controversial policies by working with acting senior officials. Ambitious political appointees whose dream is to hold permanently the senior-level job to which they are posted on an acting basis will tend to be more pliant in order to curry favor with the boss. In addition, using acting officials instead of formally nominating an official for Senate approval bypasses the confirmation process and avoids (for a limited time) a potential bruising confirmation hearing. Acting officials can’t stay that way indefinitely, but their stay is usually long enough to push controversial policies, such as Trump’s limits on military service for transgender people, into the bureaucracy.

So how effective is an acting secretary? Is it business as usual, whether the boss is acting or not? The chief problem is that without Senate confirmation, an acting secretary’s authority is limited—and his or her nomination could be dead on arrival in the Senate if a committee feels he or she has overstepped authority.

Officials in acting capacities do not have credibility with staff or with counterparts from other nations if there is doubt that their decisions may be overturned later by a formally nominated and confirmed successor. Staff and foreign officials may be tempted to wait out the limited tenure, betting that a successor may have a different viewpoint or policy. But what suffers especially is decision-making. The acting secretary is inevitably overcautious. This leads to lackluster leadership and an avoidance of hard calls or taking on the toughest issues.

Keeping an acting official in an important position is sometimes interpreted as a signal that the administration may not care much about that particular job or organization. For instance, nations rightly or wrongly tend to interpret long ambassadorial vacancies as a signal that they is just not important to the United States. Internally, staff often feel the same way. Morale takes a hit when senior positions go unfilled. Such conditions can lead to poor productivity and a weakened bureaucracy and set the conditions for rumors and conspiracy theories to spread as staff and the media speculate about why top spots remain acting.

With U.S. forces on the battlefield in multiple areas across the globe and a new fight with Iran that seems to be in the offing, now is not the time to have an acting defense secretary, much less two back-to-back. Strong, confident leadership by a Senate-confirmed defense secretary is what the White House needs. The Senate is known to work quickly to confirm nominees in such times. The White House needs to stop the acting secretary musical chairs at the Pentagon and accelerate the formal nomination process.

Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security's Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope

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