Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon
The U.S. military chain of command could soon be thrown into doubt.
President Trump is potentially on the cusp of ousting his Pentagon chief. And there are worries his team will refuse to work with Joe Biden’s incoming administration, resulting in months of unrest at a critical moment abroad.
Right now, Washington is grappling with hot spots across the globe, including the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, where there is increasing violence; ongoing tensions with Iran; and ramped-up Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
National security experts say uncertainty at home could lead to flare-ups in any one of those regions.
“Of course adversaries will try to take advantage of what they perceive to be a leadership vacuum in the U.S. national security establishment. I’d be more worried about just below-the-radar bad behavior than overt moves too,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional adviser on defense now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper — who has long been seen as out the door regardless of who won the election — may be gone as early as next week, according to numerous reports. Esper is already expected to resign during the presidential transition, but sources have also said Trump plans to fire his Pentagon chief after the election results are in.
Esper’s vacancy, which would be filled in an acting capacity by Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, would offer a window for U.S. enemies to probe America’s defenses, according to Eaglen.
“The Defense Department is one of the largest organizations in the world, with over 3 million people on the direct payroll. It needs strong leaders keeping vigilant watch with the troops and over our adversaries,” she said.
She added that at this time, with the possibility of a highly charged presidential transition as the whole world watches, “it would be ideal for continuity at the top.”
It is not uncommon for U.S. foes to take advantage of turmoil. When America and the rest of the world were preoccupied with the fight against the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all moved to test U.S. defenses.
But Washington is now heading toward a tumultuous transfer of power on top of tackling several pressing national security issues.
The U.S. is currently dealing with a drawdown of most U.S. troops in Afghanistan by next spring while brokering a peace deal with the Taliban, countering Chinese militarization in the South China Sea and addressing the ongoing threat of Iran to U.S. forces in Iraq.
Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while he could potentially see Russia or a China attempting to take advantage of any U.S. tumult, it wouldn’t be due to Pentagon leadership being in flux.
Rather, “it would be more a fact of the entire U.S. society kind of in a turbulent time and preoccupied with internal matters versus a perception that the Pentagon wouldn’t quickly respond,” Spoehr told The Hill.
“Anything that the Pentagon sees, be it in the South China Sea, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf, would get just as quickly a response as it would six months ago,” he said.
Spoehr added that the Pentagon also has the slew of top military leaders in the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bolster any changeover.
“They’d be right there for that person,” he said.
Esper on Friday remained the top civilian at the Pentagon, with senior Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman reiterating a statement issued the day before in response to an NBC News report that Esper has prepared a letter of resignation.
Esper “has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation,” Hoffman said. “The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a tiresome, well-worn, DC-insider, post-election parlor game.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere, meanwhile, said Friday that “if the president doesn’t have confidence in someone he will let you know.”
Even if Esper keeps his position through the month, a Biden presidency means a transition in power at the Pentagon.
But any fears that Trump’s reluctance to cede a presidency could kneecap a transition at the Pentagon are largely unwarranted, Spoehr said.
The Defense Department is very used to transitions and “would do their best to make sure the incoming team was successful,” he said.
He recalled the anecdote of a staffer removing all the “W” buttons on keyboards at the White House prior to former President George W. Bush entering the building after the 2000 presidential election.
“You never can anticipate what petty minds might do, but I wouldn’t expect something like that. What the Pentagon does well is transitions,” he added.
Updated at 11:51 a.m.