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Out of Africa? Two Cheers for Secretary of Defense Esper

He's no revolutionary, but his announced drawdown of troops from the continent shows a realism about U.S. power we need right now.

Then-acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in June 2019.   Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

As President Trump finishes his third year in office, all the establishment near-hysteria about his purported “America First” foreign policy has been matched by little evidence of real change. 

U.S. troops remain mired in the Greater Middle East. U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Sunday have suddenly raised new tensions with our Iraqi partners while stoking old ones with Iran. Zombie NATO expansion continues apace, with new Montenegrin and Macedonian mice added under Trump’s watch. The Navy is currently contorting itself to plausibly promise a 355-ship fleet in anyone’s lifetime. Despite Trump’s pressure and supposed quid pro quo, his Administration armed the Ukrainians against Russia, something President Obama refused to do.

Indeed, for those with serious concerns about America’s role in the world, Trump has often been the worst of both worlds: bold, even radical declarations of realignment, followed by immediate climb-downs, confusion at home and abroad, and an even more dysfunctional continuation of the status quo. No new wars on his watch—true—but gratuitous near misses in both Korea and the Persian Gulf. U.S. troops remain at their Sisyphean labors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and a host of even more peripheral countries.

Yet news emerged last week that suggests a limited U.S. military retrenchment may finally be in the offing. The New York Timesreported on December 24 that Defense Secretary Mark Esper is considering a major reduction, or even a complete pullout,of U.S. troops from West Africa. Further reviews and drawdowns in Latin America, Iraq, and Afghanistan are also possible.

CENTCOM (United States Central Command)—the sprawling military command that directs all troops from Cairo to Kazakhstan—is not high on Esper’s priority list. Indeed, as one Pentagon insider who knows Esper told me a few months ago: “Mark Esper does not give a f–k about CENTCOM.” One can be sure the more peripheral AFRICOM (Africa Command) rates even lower on the Secretary’s list.

The U.S. mission in West Africa, much of it in the hands of special operations forces, has included counter-terrorism, drones, and the advising and training of local forces battling insurgents in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. Boko Haram, the most prominent of these groups, kidnaps schoolgirls, murders thousands, and has pledged allegiance to ISIS. But Esper’s team is rightly asking what threat, if any, do African bush wars pose to Americans on U.S. soil. This question is long overdue—and it could also be asked of the Taliban, Somalia’s al Shabaab, and the ISIS remnants in the Levant.

Of course, the president should set U.S. foreign policy and defense priorities, with Congress providing a check through its control of the purse strings. But both the President and the Hill have abdicated their responsibilities in recent decades. Trump’s sometimes radical proposals are inevitably abandoned, while few Democrats or Republicans in Congress have the courage to think or talk about tackling America’s post-9/11 hubris and strategic drift. 

The most unhinged hawks can’t even bother to keep up with the details of U.S. overreach. Following the death of four American soldiers in Niger in October 2017, Senator Lindsey Graham confessed to NBC that he didn’t know America had 1,000 troops there. With Congress MIA and his Senate-focused West Point classmate Mike Pompeo likely winding up his time at Foggy Bottom, it has thus fallen to the Secretary of Defense to do much of the steering of the ship of state.

Esper came to the job with a standard upper tier Beltway military industrial complex resume, albeit leavened with combat service as an Army infantry officer in Operation Desert Storm. After a decade in the Army, he spent time at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Prior to taking over the Pentagon, Esper was the Vice President for Government Relations at Raytheon. No radical reformer he.

His predecessor at the Pentagon, retired Marine General James Mattis, had far more of a reputation as a maverick. Yet in his two years as Defense Secretary, Mattis’ prescriptions were drearily familiar: pointless escalation in Afghanistan, business as usual in the Middle East and North Africa, the same old NATO song and dance in Europe. He departed government one year ago, when the inevitable came to pass in Syria—America abandoning its Kurdish partners of convenience under Turkish pressure.

Esper is laser-focused on great power competition, and especially on China. Unlike many with a 202 phone number, he seems to grasp that American power is not unlimited. The United States needs to prioritize and divest its military of non-essential (to say nothing of unachievable) missions. One suspects that Esper can also distinguish an asset from a liability and grasps that Russian or Chinese influence in Syria or Sierra Leone needn’t keep anyone up at night.

Of course, an overdue reorientation on China has its dangers too. Erstwhile neoconservatives and liberal internationalists may shift their focus east but they will remain wedded to the same questionable assumptions and the same unshakeable hubris. Many of these leopards are changing their spots overnight. DC’s Center for a New American Security, Hillary Clinton’s old national security team-in-waiting, quickly transitioned from counterinsurgency cheerleading to hosting Republican Senator Josh Hawley for a China cri de coeur last month. The foreign policy establishment will find allies in uniform, those who are inexplicably convinced that “the Army and Marine Corps have learned how to eat soup with a knife in counter-insurgencies.” Going from global counter-insurgency to global proxy war is hardly an upgrade.

Mark Esper is a Beltway insider with, as best one can determine, wholly conventional foreign policy views. A revolutionary he is not. But with 200,000 U.S. troops deployed around the world, many of them engaged in pointless armed nation building, even a limited dose of realism and prioritization is welcome news indeed. Two cheers for Mark Esper.

Gil Barndollar is a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship and at Defense Priorities. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.

 

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