Home/Daniel Larison/Bolton Exploits Shanahan’s Weakness

Bolton Exploits Shanahan’s Weakness

Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan during a visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2017. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Flickr)

A new article on the acting Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan, offers new details on the extent of Bolton’s influence in the administration:

In particular, Shanahan’s critics say he has ceded too much authority over major decisions to Bolton, a security hawk and experienced bureaucratic gunslinger.

Last month, for example, the Pentagon was overruled on the decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, which was supported by Bolton and Pompeo.

Even worse, Defense Department officials with direct knowledge of Shanahan’s operations said, he has tolerated a practice by Bolton and the National Security Council staff of calling Pentagon underlings and inserting themselves deep into the chain of command. That means the people who work for Shanahan are unprotected from interference by White House staff, who are not in the military’s chain of authority.

“These kinds of surgical strikes into the building didn’t happen with the previous regime,” said one Defense Department official who has worked with Shanahan, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about their boss. “The NSC staff habitually reaches down into the bowels of the building.”

Shanahan’s deference to Bolton is a function of the National Security Advisor’s grip on the policy process that was already there, but it also reflects the weakness of Shanahan’s position at the Pentagon because he has not been confirmed in his position by the Senate. In fact, Shanahan’s nomination has not even been formally submitted. The departure of Mattis removed one of Bolton’s main internal rivals, and his replacement by an acting yes-man has made it even easier for the National Security Advisor to dominate things. His willingness to let Bolton and the NSC get away with interfering in the chain of command underscores that weakness. As the article says later:

“Bolton is driving all things policy,” a former department official said bluntly.

It is not an accident that U.S. provocations of Iran have increased significantly in the last six months since Mattis resigned, as Bolton has had more or less free rein to push his agenda. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have ratcheted up significantly during that period as a direct result of the confrontational actions that the administration has taken, and that has happened in no small part because there has been no one inside the administration willing to push back against his most dangerous ideas. The administration’s overall dysfunction and Bolton’s abnormal control of the policy process have combined with a toxic agenda to create a very hazardous situation.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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