Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Pentagon Exodus Leaves Critical Gaps

Of 59 Senate-confirmed positions at the Department of Defense, 15 are currently vacant—and that number will soon rise to 18.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a media briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28 in Arlington, Virginia.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a media briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28 in Arlington, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Senior Pentagon officials’ rush for the exit leaves critical gaps in policymaking, Donald Trump becomes the third president to be impeached in U.S. history, and tensions rise in the Mediterranean over Turkey’s support for Libya.

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Pentagon Struggles to Fill Empty Posts

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Senior Pentagon officials’ rush for the exit leaves critical gaps in policymaking, Donald Trump becomes the third president to be impeached in U.S. history, and tensions rise in the Mediterranean over Turkey’s support for Libya.

If you would like to receive Security Brief Plus in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Pentagon Struggles to Fill Empty Posts

As the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach the president on Wednesday, across the river at the Pentagon another drama was unfolding. Department of Defense vacancies hit a high of 19 this summer amid turmoil over Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s departure. His successor, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, has pledged to fill critical leadership gaps. Despite his best efforts, the departures keep piling up.

Six senior defense officials have tendered their resignations in the past month, including four that require Senate confirmation to replace: Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Asia policy chief Randy Schriver, manpower chief James Stewart, and a top intelligence official, Kari Bingen. Of 59 Senate-confirmed positions at the Pentagon, 15 are currently vacant—and that number will soon rise to 18, Lara Seligman reports.

Hostile work environment. The exodus is blamed largely on John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, whose abrasive style created a hostile work environment that prompted a steady drumbeat of departures over the past year and has made it harder for the department to recruit top talent, according to insiders. One defense official recounted an episode in which Rood was verbally abusive, yelling, cursing, and slamming his hand on the table.

No relief in sight. Less than one year before a presidential election, it’s unlikely these key gaps will be filled anytime soon, leaving defense policymakers overloaded and under-resourced. As top officials head for the exits, 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, the would-be appointees will have to be renominated.


What We’re Watching

Trump’s impeachment. U.S. President Donald Trump was impeached on Wednesday night by the House of Representatives after a bitterly partisan slog and a vote along party lines, FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer report. Trump is still not likely to be removed from office after a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Beyond the political reverberations at home, impeachment could also affect Trump’s foreign policy, former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller argues in CNN. “Perhaps the greatest risk and danger to U.S. foreign policy in the coming year is that U.S. adversaries, aware of Trump’s desperation, will test him,” he writes.

Top U.S. diplomat to leave Ukraine. William Taylor was pulled out of retirement to serve as the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine after his predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, was ousted from her job. He found himself at the center of a political firestorm that led to Trump’s impeachment, compelled to testify before Congress and castigated by the White House. Now he’s being rushed out the door. U.S. officials tell FP that Taylor is being asked to leave his post on Jan. 1 or 2—just days ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Kyiv.

According to officials, he’s being asked to leave before his term expires on Jan. 8 in part so Pompeo can avoid an awkward photo-op with a key impeachment witness—as confirmed by NBC News, ABC News, and other outlets. The State Department declined to comment.

Turkey delivers armed drone to Cyprus.  On Monday, Turkey delivered an armed drone to the breakaway Republic of Northern Cyprus, a move that is seen as an attempt to stake out new claims in the eastern Mediterranean amid a new deal with Libya. Last month, Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized government for drilling rights for gas deposits in the region, including in areas claimed by the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union. The move is likely to stoke tensions between Turkey and Cyprus. It also reveals another part of the growing proxy conflict in Libya, where rival Middle Eastern powers and European countries are vying for influence.


Foreign Policy Recommends

Why were two North Korean defectors repatriated? In early November, two North Korean fishermen were captured in South Korean waters in an attempt to defect to the South. They were blindfolded and sent to the Demilitarized Zone, then repatriated to North Korea to face what human rights activists say is a guaranteed execution, the New York Times reports. The story is shocking in part because it is the first time the government in Seoul has refused to accept defectors from North Korea, a major departure that could signal some attempt to warm relations with Pyongyang.


Quote of the Week

“They seem to be engaged in an attempt to ethnically reengineer this sliver of territory along the border in northeast Syria.”

—Hardin Lang, a former U.N. peacekeeping official now at Refugees International, on Turkey’s proposal to the United Nations to resettle 1 million refugees in northeastern Syria


Odds and Ends

U.S.-Wakanda free trade agreement. Until Wednesday, Wakanda, the fictional country featured in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther, was listed on the Agricultural Tariff Tracker on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website as a free trade partner of the United States. Before it was removed, the Wakanda entry had hundreds of data inputs, including a full inventory of commodities from fresh vegetables to coffee beans.

The Department of Agriculture sadly removed Wakanda from its website after media inquiries, leaving us without any insights into how the country has altered its longstanding protectionist trade policies.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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