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Trump's Pentagon shakeup may be more than perceived disloyalty

The departures at the Pentagon continue, as Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE’s Pentagon purge seems never to end. The most recent resignation was that of Alexis Ross, a former Capitol Hill staffer who served under Mark EsperMark EsperActing Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition MORE as deputy assistant secretary of the Army. When Esper moved down the E-ring to become secretary of Defense, Ross moved with him as his deputy chief of staff. Her immediate boss, chief of staff Jen Stewart, had resigned a few days earlier, as had Vice Admiral Joseph Kernan, who was under secretary for intelligence, and Jim Anderson, the acting under secretary for policy. 

And, of course, Esper himself was the first of those to depart, having been fired by a presidential tweet. He was replaced by acting Secretary Christopher Miller.

When Joseph Stalin liquidated his top generals in 1937 — among them the brilliant Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevksy, the reformer General Iona Yakir and the chief of staff Alexander Yegorov — he paid no attention to the possible consequences of his purge. Within two years the Soviet Union found itself nearly defeated by Finland in the Winter War, and a year later it was overrun by Hitler’s forces. Trump’s purge of top Pentagon civilians is unlikely to result in similar disasters, but it could lead America’s adversaries to take advantage of the Pentagon’s interregnum.

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We may never be certain what motivated Trump to launch his assault on the Pentagon. It was widely known that Esper was skating on thin ice ever since he intimated that he regretted having participated in Trump’s theatrical crossing of Lafayette Square during street protests, followed by a bizarre photo-op in which the president held a Bible that he never opened. Once Esper was dispatched, it was clear that those most closely associated with him, Stewart and Ross, would leave as well, if only to avoid being presidential collateral damage.

Anderson sent his resignation letter to the White House the same day as Stewart. He knew that he, too, was not long for the Pentagon, having resisted having Anthony Tata as his chief of staff. Tata now replaces him. There has been less focus on Kernan, who may have been on Trump’s chopping block because he did not work hard enough to demonstrate that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election.

Clearly, Trump’s perception of disloyalty — or more accurately, insufficient loyalty — was one factor that led to the Pentagon house-cleaning. He replaced those who left with men whose loyalty to him was beyond doubt. Beyond avenging his slights and rewarding his supporters, Trump may have two other motives for pushing out top leaders. 

By replacing seasoned Pentagon managers with those who, even if they served for decades — as has Miller — and certainly if they have not — such as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the new acting under secretary for intelligence, and Kesh Patel, the new Pentagon chief of staff, whose position renders him more powerful than under secretaries and even service secretaries — Trump probably seeks to make it more difficult for Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE’s team to coordinate with Pentagon officials who have yet to familiarize themselves with all aspects of their jobs. 

Nevertheless, Biden is right to be confident in the ability of his transition team to overcome whatever obstacles Trump throws in its way, because its members are all experienced. Many of them, such as Kath Hicks, retired Adm. Michelle Howard and Mike McCord, have held senior Pentagon posts in the recent past.

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Trump may have yet another, equally compelling reason for changing the Pentagon leadership: In looking ahead to another possible presidential run in 2024, he must make good on his campaign promise to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. Esper was reluctant to go along with his plan, as were the departing under secretaries. On the other hand, Miller lacks the power of one confirmed in that position to face down the White House, or for that matter, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE

Moreover, Miller has shown his hand by installing Doug Macgregor as senior advisor. Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, is an out-of-the box thinker and military historian. But he is also an outspoken advocate of troop withdrawals from overseas, especially Afghanistan, and has demonstrated contempt for Muslims. He likely will do all he can to expedite Trump’s game plan.

In spite of all the departures and replacements, it is not at all clear that Trump will have his way and bring the troops “home by Christmas.” The military has ways of dragging its heels when it wants to, just as it can respond with alacrity when it needs to. Trump may find that just as those who predicted World War I would end by Christmas 1914, but found it drag on for four more years, America’s complete withdrawal from the Middle East will outlast his unhappy departure from office.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.