Report

Biden Loses Top Pentagon Asia Hand

Yet more turnover at the Pentagon for the administration.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey
Then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 22, 2020. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department’s onetime acting top Asia official has left the building’s policy shop, a blow for the Pentagon as the Biden administration battles Congress to bring more nominees on board. 

David Helvey, who was serving as acting assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, left the Pentagon earlier this month to become a senior advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, according to a source familiar with the move and Helvey’s LinkedIn page. Kenneth Handelman, a Pentagon civil servant with two decades of experience, had been serving in the role after Helvey’s departure. 

The U.S. Defense Department’s onetime acting top Asia official has left the building’s policy shop, a blow for the Pentagon as the Biden administration battles Congress to bring more nominees on board. 

David Helvey, who was serving as acting assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, left the Pentagon earlier this month to become a senior advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, according to a source familiar with the move and Helvey’s LinkedIn page. Kenneth Handelman, a Pentagon civil servant with two decades of experience, had been serving in the role after Helvey’s departure. 

Helvey, who had served under the Obama and Trump administrations, had been held over under Biden. Helvey was temporarily elevated to the Pentagon’s top Asia job as the White House’s pick for the fully confirmed role, Ely Ratner, awaited Senate confirmation. Ratner had been among several Pentagon nominees being held up in the Senate. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have blocked Biden nominees over objections to the White House’s foreign-policy decisions, including the move to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. 

“The bottom line is that Helvey was a great respected leader in [Indo-Pacific security affairs] and whatever he was called on to do he stepped up to the plate on,” said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former top civilian aide at U.S. Pacific Command. “If the Senate wants to talk a good game about the importance of Asia and the Biden administration moving toward China the most important thing they can do in the next few weeks is to confirm Ely and Dan Kritenbrink.”

Kritenbrink, whom Biden nominated to lead the State Department’s Asia policy in April, has yet to be confirmed. Ratner was confirmed to be the assistant secretary of defense of Indo-Pacific security affairs on Thursday afternoon, after Foreign Policy first reported on Helvey’s departure. 

Even though Helvey was not expected to stay for the long term, he had worked closely with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, serving at his side during the Pentagon leader’s first overseas trip to Japan, South Korea, India, and Afghanistan in March. He has served in high-ranking Asia jobs in the agency since 2004. Helvey’s departure had temporarily left the agency without a principal deputy assistant secretary and created more churn in the Defense Department shop responsible for overseeing both the Indo-Pacific pivot and the Afghanistan withdrawal. This uncertainty in staffing comes as the Pentagon is working to help find U.S. and overseas locations to house interpreters and their families who supported the American military. 

One defense official, speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said that Handelman, who had replaced Helvey in the acting role, would bring expertise on Afghanistan to the job as the Pentagon has honed its focus on helping relocate visa applicants as well as the U.S. troop withdrawal, which is over 95 percent complete. It was not immediately clear if Handelman would move into the Asia shop’s No. 2 job after Ratner’s confirmation. 

Helvey is the second top acting official to land a job at the U.S. Mission to NATO in recent weeks. Stacy Cummings, who had been performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, is leaving for a different job in Brussels, Politico first reported. Helvey is also leaving as the Pentagon is putting the finishing touches on a global review of U.S. military posture, and as Austin is set to leave on a multiday swing of Southeast Asia on Friday, including Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. 

The Senate has confirmed 12 Biden nominees at the Pentagon so far, including Austin and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. Four more picks are awaiting a vote, and five more are still backed up in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Michael Brown, Biden’s pick to be the agency’s top acquisition official, told Austin last week that he planned to withdraw from consideration for the job, facing a Pentagon inspector general investigation that alleged that he went around federal hiring strictures when working for the agency’s Defense Innovation Unit. 

Congress appears to be making some headway on the backlog. The Senate confirmed six Pentagon nominees on Thursday, headlined by Ratner and Heidi Shyu, Biden’s pick to lead the Defense Department’s research and engineering shop. 

Still, Brown’s decision to drop his bid leaves the Biden administration without nominees for 26 of the Pentagon’s 60 Senate-confirmed roles, according to a Washington Post tracker of national security nominations. And even if they clear obstacles on the path to confirmation, Biden’s picks could be waiting a while. The Senate is set to go on a monthlong recess on Aug. 9.

The White House had hoped to avoid the staffing shortages that consistently plagued the Trump administration. Biden’s number of appointees is similar to those confirmed during the Trump administration at the same time, but it is nearly 150 less than at a similar point in the Obama administration.

“This is something that the deputy secretary and I, and … all of my leadership remained focused on each and every day,” Austin said at a press conference on Wednesday. “And we continue to work with the White House to make sure that we have quality and qualified applicants to fill these seats.”

Update, July 22, 2021: This story was updated to include news of Ely Ratner’s confirmation to lead the Pentagon’s Asia office.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Tag: China

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