In defense of Mark Esper
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has come under fire from the left. He was accused of favoring an overly military response to the riots that followed the tragic death of George Floyd and was condemned for walking with President Trump across Lafayette Park. Esper was finally able to tell his side of the story this month at the hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. He set the record straight. No active duty units took part in law enforcement. The National Guard did not advance on the crowd in Lafayette Park, nor did it use rubber bullets or chemical agents.
Moreover, he affirmed that the military has an appropriate constitutional role to play in supporting civil authorities, and that law and order must be returned to the streets of America. In other words, Esper stands with the president. That is perhaps why the left has it in for Esper. They despise the president and dislike the defense agenda of the administration, as Trump consistently invests in strengthening our armed forces and has reoriented military strategy to address this new era of great power competition. No one has done more to advance that defense agenda than Esper.
His leadership has made real gains on multiple fronts by building a more lethal force, strengthening alliances, and implementing reforms. Military readiness levels have steadily improved. New and better ships, planes, and platforms are coming on line. Research and engineering in critical areas such as directed energy, unmanned systems, hypersonic missiles, and artificial intelligence have been jump started to give our troops the fundamental tools they will need to prevail in future combat.
Despite dogged opposition, Esper has managed to keep critical nuclear modernization programs on track to replace those systems built in the 1970s. Budget constraints, with funding essentially a flat line from last year, has inhibited faster progress, but steady improvements are visible across the board. We would love to hear more from the secretary on the recent suggestions to “defund the military” by progressives.
Like the president, Esper is no isolationist. He is committed to deploying and employing the forces prudently. Hence, he resisted calls to deplete our armed forces in Europe and elsewhere and pile them into the Pacific region to counter China. He understands that competition with countries like China and Russia is a global game, one in which the United States must engage wherever our adversaries choose to head into.
But this is not to suggest that the Pentagon is not taking China seriously. Unlike previous pivots to the Pacific, the Defense Department under Esper has taken visible and concrete action to keep China in check. Freedom of navigation patrols are up, investments in weapons and forces geared to Pacific operations have increased, and the presence of multiple carrier strike groups in the South China Sea has become routine.
The administration does continue to struggle with some allies, such as Germany and South Korea, to find agreement on the appropriate levels of defense burden sharing. Yet overall defense relations with our allies have never been stronger today. Our security relationships with India, Israel, Poland, and Ukraine have greatly improved in recent years.
Esper has played an integral role in the key efforts of the administration to awaken other countries to the threat of China. The decision of the United Kingdom to boot Huawei out of its 5G network, in part because of security concerns, is but one instance. Another example is the announcement by the Philippines that it will not be pulling out of a mutual defense pact with the United States as the country had previously planned.
As for bureaucratic reforms of the Pentagon, Esper has been impressively strong. As the secretary of the Army, he instigated the “night court” which found $5 billion in savings that could be now used to fund modernization programs. Upon becoming the secretary of the Defense Department, he also implemented a rigorous review of the entire Pentagon.
Esper is a serious and effective leader. He is a straight shooter with Trump, willing to work with Congress, and a team player in the Cabinet. He cares about our troops and he loves his country. He is focused on meeting the charge of the president to have the United States military ready for great power competition, and he has delivered constructive change which has been missing in Washington for over a decade. It is a shame that the left will not let him get on with the job that he is doing so well.
James Carafano is vice president and director of foreign relations research at the Heritage Foundation. Thomas Spoehr is a retired lieutenant general and director of the Center of National Defense at the Heritage Foundation.