America, Meet Your (Acting) Secretary of Defense
“It hasn’t received much attention, what with Donald Trump suddenly declaring victory against isis, ordering U.S. troops out of Syria, and provoking James Mattis to resign in protest. But the man who is now the president’s principal adviser on the nation’s defense, tasked with leading the largest employer in the world and managing the fallout from Trump’s military retrenchment, has less experience in government (a year and a half) or the military (none) than any defense secretary since an oil magnate served as the acting head of the Pentagon for several weeks during Watergate 45 years ago…Focus solely on the policy positions Shanahan has staked out, and you’ll hear echoes of his outgoing boss. They’re a reminder of the difficulty Trump will have in finding a new Pentagon chief from any corner of the political-military-industrial complex whose views, as Mattis put it in his resignation letter, ‘are better aligned’ with the president’s. In his disdain for traditional American allies, disregard for the authoritarian threat from Russia and China, and dismissal of the U.S.-led international system as a boondoggle, the commander in chief of the United States’s military largely stands alone.
But Shanahan can come across as less enthused about Trump’s ideas themselves than making the ideas work—of ingeniously solving the president’s problems, like a good engineer. ‘It’s pretty exciting,’ he has said of the Space Force. ‘Over a very short period of time, it’s been thrust upon us to create and grow a new organization.’ With Mattis’s departure, the last full-throated advocate of the principles that have guided U.S. foreign policy for decades has now left Trump’s inner circle, following in the footsteps of figures such as H. R. McMaster and Nikki Haley. Taking their place are disruptors (such as the president’s sovereigntist national-security adviser John Bolton) and doers (be it pragmatic implementers of Trumpism like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or loyal foot soldiers like the UN ambassador nominee Heather Nauert). Shanahan’s approach seems closest to that of Pompeo, who served in Congress but previously made a career in business as well. As something of an unknown quantity, Shanahan now appears to be auditioning before Trump, during a period when many of the president’s top aides—from his new chief of staff to his attorney general—are similarly in limbo as ‘acting’ advisers.