Pentagon’s Policy Chief Under Fire as Senior Officials Head for the Exits
Current and former officials point to John Rood as a major source of frustration in the U.S. Defense Department policy shop.
Three years into U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, the Pentagon is bleeding senior policymakers faster than it can replace them, an exodus that many current and former defense officials largely blame on a toxic work environment created by John Rood, the Defense Department’s top policy official.
Soon after the Senate confirmed Mark Esper as Pentagon chief this summer, the new defense secretary pledged to rebuild the senior ranks of the department. But friction within the Pentagon’s policy shop, particularly frustration with Rood’s leadership style, has stymied progress. Nearly a dozen current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity pointed to Rood as a major contributor to the departures and the Pentagon’s struggle to fill the empty posts.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the department has the “utmost confidence” in Rood’s “expertise and professionalism.”
“He has demonstrated effective and constant leadership over the past two years as Under Secretary for Policy in a difficult, demanding and vital role in the Department with responsibility for aligning civilian and military policy across the globe in accordance with the Secretary’s focus on the National Defense Strategy,” Hoffman told Foreign Policy.
Insiders noted that the department’s staffing problem runs deeper than Rood. The Pentagon’s civilian leadership has struggled to recruit top talent since the beginning of the Trump administration. Many national security experts signed “Never Trump” letters that disqualified them for roles in the administration; still others refused to work for Trump. The shallow bench got even thinner after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned a year ago and the department’s senior leadership fell into chaos. During the nearly seven months following Mattis’s departure that the Pentagon went without a permanent leader, the number of empty or only temporarily filled Senate-confirmed posts rose to a high of 19 in July.
“I don’t know that policy has ever had a chance to get its legs under it in this administration so far,” said one former defense official.
But though Esper has tried to fill that gap, moving forward with key nominations and empowering the civilian leadership, the effort has been fraught. While the Senate confirmed Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy this fall, other nominations have languished, including comptroller and chief management officer. Now, less than one year before the presidential election, it may be too late in the administration to attract new talent. And if the Senate doesn’t act before the end of the year on six pending nominations for top Pentagon jobs, those would-be appointees will have to be renominated.
“There’s a very tricky election coming up so this is a natural time for people to leave,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It makes it triply hard. It’s Trump, it’s late in an administration, and so it is really hard to find people to fill these jobs.”
Despite Esper’s efforts, the departures keep piling up. Six senior officials have tendered their resignations in the past month, including four who require Senate confirmation to replace: Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs James Stewart, and Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Kari Bingen. Steven Walker, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Tina Kaidanow, the senior advisor for international cooperation in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, are also stepping down.
Of 59 Senate-confirmed positions, 15 are currently vacant, according to a department spokesperson–and that number will rise to 18 when Schriver, Stewart and Bingen depart. Adding to the strain on the senior leadership, multiple officials, including Stewart, are serving in two senior roles at once.
In a recent gaggle with reporters, Esper played down the recent spate of resignations, attributing the departures to the “rhythm” of Washington.
“That’s a normal rotation, folks have been at it hard for two years now, two-plus years,” Esper told traveling press on the way back from Europe. “[We want to] get people in place as quickly as possible, if not confirmed, at least acting, and keep moving the Pentagon forward.”
A Pentagon spokesperson noted that the department has made several new hires since the summer. In policy, seven formerly vacant deputy assistant secretary of defense positions, which do not require Senate confirmation, have been filled: Heino Klinck, for East Asia; David Lasseter, for countering weapons of mass destruction; Pete Marocco, for Africa; Mike Ryan, for Europe and NATO; Chad Sbragia, for China; Reed Werner, for South and Southeast Asia; and Tom Wingfield, for cybersecurity policy. However, many vacancies remain, including the top Middle East and Afghanistan policy positions.
But current and former officials blame Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy and a former industry executive who assumed the job in January 2018, for a steady drumbeat of departures over the past year. These sources pointed to a hostile work environment, saying that Rood is frequently “abrasive” toward his staff.
One defense official recounted an episode in which Rood was verbally abusive, yelling, cursing, and slamming his hand on the table. Though the issue was minor, Rood would not let it go, dragging the dispute out for several days.
The defense official also blamed Esper’s front office, largely made up of holdovers from former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s team, for the stagnation. The front office has been unable to make key personnel decisions, the official said.
Another frustration among Pentagon civilians is the perception that Rood does not stand up to his military counterparts in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which has grown more powerful over the past three years as the policy shop struggled to fill key positions. Current and former officials say staffers at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, sometimes referred to as OSD(P), feel Rood does not have their backs.
“He never did much to advance the civil service and he doesn’t rely on the advice of OSD(P),” said a second former defense official. “You get the impression that he doesn’t trust his own staff.”
For example, when the administration was negotiating options for a Fort Trump in Poland, the office recommended a limited, rotational presence instead of a permanent footprint, recounted the second former defense official. Rood would not sign off until the Joint Staff approached him separately to back the plan, the former official said.
When it came to Syria policy, Rood relied on the advice of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie—who served as director of the Joint Staff from July 2017 until March, when he assumed command of U.S. Central Command—at times over the objections of his civilian staffers. Rood and the senior military leadership “really didn’t want to do anything to balance” the U.S. support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces with the need to manage the broader relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that views the YPG as a terrorist threat on its border, according to the former defense official. Mattis was frequently forced to step in to ease the tension and restore balance, the former official said.
“There was this tension between short-term operational objectives, which require us to work with the SDF, and long-term strategic goals like competition with Russia,” said the second former defense official. “You undermine Turkey, you undermine your ability to counter Iran and Russia because they step in to fill the gap.”
Rood “never seemed to fully appreciate that argument,” the former official added.
Other former defense officials defended Rood.
“I have known and worked with John in various capacities for decades. My working relationship with him at OSD was always excellent,” said David Trachtenberg, former deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, in a statement provided to Foreign Policy by a department spokesperson. “I think the fact that John and I both previously served in OSD Policy contributed to our understanding of the importance of civilian oversight of the military and our appreciation of the talent and professionalism of the Policy workforce.”
A third former defense official said Rood was frustrated by the shallow bench and lack of expertise at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and often turned to the Joint Staff for help on tough issues.
“Many were a mile wide and an inch deep,” the third former defense official said. “There was a lot of pressure, and frustration with the depth of knowledge in policy that Rood felt very responsible for alleviating.”
Loren DeJonge Schulman, who formerly served on the National Security Council staff and in the Pentagon, called on Esper to empower the civilian leadership of the department, noting the increased tensions between civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon in recent years.
“With all these gaps, it’s critical that Esper ensure that all of his acting officials are empowered to represent the department in their policy areas, whether at the White House, in Congress, or inside DOD’s,” said DeJonge Schulman, who is now the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.
Whatever the cause, time is running out for Trump’s Pentagon to staff up. Despite the vacancies, Esper must continue to make policy decisions and grapple with global crises.
“The odds of him getting a full slate by the end of this term are small. But the Department still has to function effectively, and he owes it to those in uniform to ensure that civilian oversight and policymaking are as effective as they should be, regardless of what officials are on [Esper’s] org chart,” DeJonge Schulman said.
Here is the full list of current 15 presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed vacancies on the Department of Defense’s staff:
- Chief management officer
- Undersecretary of defense (Comptroller)
- Undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness
- Deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness
- Assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense
- Assistant secretary of defense for sustainment
- Assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict
- Assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs
- DoD inspector general
- Director of cost assessment and program evaluation
- Undersecretary of the army
- Secretary of the navy
- Assistant secretary of the navy for energy, installations, and environment
- Navy general counsel
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman