The elevation of Patrick Shanahan to the secretary of defense position will likely make National Security Adviser John Bolton the most powerful voice inside President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
So say defense analysts who spoke to TAC this week. Former U.S. officials also said they fear that Shanahan’s relative lack of experience may set America on a path to war, and cited a New York Times report that Shanahan had delivered to Bolton a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Subsequent reports indicate that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more.
Shanahan is expected to be nominated for the top Pentagon slot, subject to Senate confirmation. And according to Stephen Wertheim, assistant professor of history at Columbia University, during the confirmation hearings, “when senators think Shanahan, they should think Bolton. Because a vacuum at the top of DoD means that the department becomes a rubber stamp for Bolton.”
Bolton is an unapologetic Bush-era war hawk with four decades of experience inside the Beltway. Throughout his long career, he’s advocated for regime change in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. As national security adviser, he appears determined to consolidate his power in the Cabinet, usurping powers that traditionally reside with the military.
For example, the Pentagon is now referring questions about troop deployments to the National Security Council. Taking a page from former vice president Dick Cheney’s playbook, Bolton recently took the highly unusual step of convening a meeting about a possible confrontation with Iran not at the White House, but at CIA headquarters.
Given Bolton’s background and clear aspirations for confronting Iran, the secretary of defense may be the only position within Trump’s cabinet that could serve as a hedge or mediating voice. In cabinet debates over these contentious issues, security analysts fear that the former Boeing executive will be badly outmatched by the decades of experience that Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bring to the table, especially when compared to his predecessor, decorated Marine General Jim Mattis. Shanahan’s lack of experience in defense strategy and policy is worrying, they say, particularly as Bolton heats up the rhetoric on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
“He’s likely to default to whatever Pompeo or Bolton wants,” retired U.S. Army colonel and defense analyst Douglas Macgregor said in an interview with TAC.
“Pompeo and Bolton have agendas,” Macgregor added. “They’re not Trump’s, but in the absence of strong leadership, Shanahan is unlikely to put up much resistance.”
Meanwhile, according to reports, Bolton has publicly favored demoting the position of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to a sub-cabinet level, suggesting that whoever replaces Ambassador Nikki Haley, who resigned in December, will now answer directly to the Secretary of State.
“What we now have under Trump is a triumvirate of Bolton, Pompeo, and Shanahan; it’s pretty clear what Bolton’s views are, and they’re very troubling,” Wertheim said. “Pompeo hasn’t distinguished himself with a consistent set of views. He seems too eager to pay lip service to all sides of the foreign policy debate. And then you have Shanahan…and he doesn’t have a strategy or policy background. That leaves Bolton as the major figure, who isn’t subject to confirmation by the Senate.”
Until he joined the Pentagon nearly two years ago, Shanahan had never worked in the government. Instead he spent 30 years working for the Pentagon’s second largest contractor, Boeing, where he distinguished himself by winning multi-billion dollar government contracts.
“[Shanahan] is the weakest link,” a recently departed anonymous senior Pentagon official told Politico. “Shanahan hasn’t been around these kinds of decisions and has zero policy experience and zero military experience. Mattis had experience and gravitas that Shanahan simply doesn’t have, and Bolton has years of experience in dealing with bureaucracy in this town, which gives him a huge advantage.”
For Bolton, “compared to Mattis, Shanahan is a major improvement,” Trita Parsi, associate professor at Georgetown University, told TAC.
“Bolton has decades inside the bureaucracy, and decades [of experience] attempting to move us into war with Iran,” Parsi said. “Shanahan will be easy to manipulate, because he isn’t a heavyweight on policy or strategy, and he is inexperienced at bureaucratic infighting.”
“It’s important to keep in mind that Shanahan is not a person who comes in with a lot of depth, if any at all, when it comes to broader American strategy,” Parsi added. “His experience has been to make money off arms sales [and we already] we have too much of his transactional foreign policy making skill set. …We need someone who can see the broader picture, and I don’t think anyone would accuse Shanahan of that.”
When it comes to Shanahan’s policy breadth, “a lot of the other people in the administration are much more adept politically and bureaucratically,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. “Right now it seems like Bolton is driving a lot of the agenda, and you’re really not seeing much pushback from DoD publicly. The Defense Department is not even doing on-camera briefings.”
Shanahan “won’t rock the boat,” Macgregor said. “He’s from the defense industry. There’s no background in military or in strategy. You could argue he’s not really qualified.”
During the confirmation hearings for the deputy slot, senators on both sides of the aisle argued exactly that. The late John McCain suggested that Shanahan’s decades of experience working for defense contractors might make him the fox guarding the henhouse.
And as Shanahan’s nomination hearings grow closer, there is some indication that senators continue to harbor reservations about him.
“I have been unimpressed by the lackluster testimony Shanahan provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee during recent hearings, and deeply concerned about his three decades in the corporate culture, which have undoubtedly shaped his limited perspective on national security issues,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, said in a recent statement. Blumenthal, elected to the Senate in 2011, continued, “Shanahan may be the least-qualified nominee for secretary of Defense that the Senate Armed Services Committee has considered during my time in the Senate.”
If confirmed, Shanahan would be the ninth defense secretary who did not serve in the military. Though there’s no shortage of industry chiefs in plum government positions, his 30 years at Boeing represent an aberration in U.S. history, for, as Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung write, “no secretary of defense in recent memory has had such a long career in the arms industry and so little experience in government or the military.” The “closest analogues to Shanahan,” they continue, “were Charlie Wilson, head of General Motors, whom President Dwight Eisenhower appointed to lead the Department of Defense more than 60 years ago and John F. Kennedy’s first defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who ran the Ford Motor Company before joining the administration.” While McNamara was famous for his management skills, his stint at the helm of the Department of Defense was marred by his role in escalating America’s role in the Vietnam war.
It’s unclear whether Shanahan will endorse Bolton’s belligerent position on Iran or the troop deployments in Venezuela that have been suggested. As the nomination hearings approach, Shanahan’s policy views remain largely a mystery, which contributes to the view that he would be a tabula rasa, pliable to Bolton’s bellicosity.
“I don’t know his policy background, I don’t know if anybody does,”Macgregor said. “My principal concerns about Shanahan are that he’s a lifelong Boeing executive, and he’s predisposed to keep the money flowing, period. I think he’ll do anything he can to satiate the appetite” of those looking to increase defense spending.
The direction Shanahan might take as defense secretary is “an open question,” said Wertheim. “Few people are experts on Shanahan, because he spent his career at Boeing, rather than in U.S. policymaking or in the wider policy community. I’m hoping that in a confirmation hearing, senators of both parties step up and force him to articulate his views.”
Yet despite his lack of experience, Pentagon employees are not critical of Shanahan, insiders say.
“They say he’s open to listening. He knows he doesn’t know a lot,” Parsi said. However, “that’s not necessarily the kind of person you want [as head of DoD] when you have an out of control national security adviser looking for war wherever he can find it. Listening cannot compensate for lack of knowledge and experience.”
As to what policies the prospective new secretary of defense might support, Macgregor believes Shanahan will maintain the “status quo” and endorse Trump’s direction.
“You’re not dealing with someone who has a great deal of intellectual heft,” Macgregor said. “There’s nothing lofty or significant here.”
Former secretary of defense Jim Mattis notoriously clashed with Trump over the president’s decision to withdraw at least 5,000 troops from Syria and the role of NATO. He also held traditional views about how America should approach its friends and foes throughout the world, and did not embrace Trump’s restrained foreign policy approach.
So why is Trump attracted to Shanahan? Because, said Wertheim, he “doesn’t want someone with a strong policy vision in the Department of Defense.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s Foreign Policy & National Security reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @BBatDC.