Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump

Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump
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U.S. allies were apprehensive about acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanOvernight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia: reports The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet MORE in his first meeting with NATO defense officials, with questions about the former Boeing executive’s timetable in his current role, and how much he will be able to support the alliance as President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE continues to question its use.

Shanahan, who has largely focused on internal Pentagon issues since he was named deputy Defense secretary in July 2017, was thrust into the acting position on Jan. 1 following the resignation of former secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisWatchdog: Former Pentagon spokeswoman misused staff for personal errands Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE.

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Shanahan visited Afghanistan and Iraq before making his NATO debut, meeting with defense chiefs in Brussels on Thursday and a group of defense ministers in Munich on Friday as part of his first major international trip with his new title, .

Experts said allies were gauging whether Shanahan will be as supportive of the 70-year-old military alliance as Mattis was.

“I think there’s a feeling that he said all the right things, but at the same time no one knows how long he’s going to be the [defense secretary],” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO under President Obama.

“Will he be there in three weeks?”

Townsend, who is now with the Center for a New American Security, said Shanahan’s talks largely dispelled some of the apprehensions allies had going into the meetings, with the new defense chief delivering a message of unity and promises to not pull the 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan without first consulting NATO.

About half of U.S. forces in the country are working with NATO to train and advise Afghan forces in the fight against the Taliban.

“There will be no unilateral troop reduction,” Shanahan told reporters in Brussels after meeting with NATO defense chiefs. “That was one of the messages of the meeting today. We'll be coordinated. We're together.”

Allies worry what could happen should Washington quickly yank forces from the region, where smaller European countries have troops that rely on U.S. resources including air support.

But Townsend added that while the partner countries appreciated the assurances from Shanahan, they “are very aware” that such promises could prove hollow given Trump's history of seemingly off-the-cuff decisions, including his surprise announcement to pull U.S. forces from Syria. 

Though he speaks as a representative of the Trump administration, partners wonder, “does he really represent the president in what he was saying?”

“He could find himself blindsided with a surprise tweet from the president” that contradicts such promises, Townsend said. “I think all the allies know that’s always possible.”

Shanahan also lightly reminded nations to increase spending towards the defense of the alliance.

“What I hear from President Trump is we, collectively, all need to do more. His message to NATO has been, ‘We need to do more,’” he told reporters in Brussels. “I don’t think there is a divergence, okay? We have to do this together.”

President Trump has rankled European allies by frequently disparaging the international body, and repeatedly suggesting that the United States withdrawal from the 29-country alliance that includes Canada and European nations. 

The president – who memorably called NATO “obsolete” on the campaign trail - reportedly privately told aides several times over the past year that he wants to withdraw from NATO, seen by many as a cornerstone of the post-World War II world order.

In and an attempted justification, Trump has often lamented that Europe and other allies pay too little while the U.S. contributes a disproportionate amount to fund NATO and protects other countries.

Members do not pay into NATO, but rather contribute toward defense spending in their respective budgets.

During the NATO summit in July 2018, he demanded member states to double their defense spending to 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – a goal the United States does not currently meet - threatening that the U.S. could “go it alone,” if spending wasn’t increased.

NATO members agreed in 2014 to move toward spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024.

Allies’ fears were recast on Friday at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, where Vice President Pence knocked NATO allies who he said “still need to do more.”

“The United States expects every NATO member to put in place a credible plan to meet the 2 percent threshold. And, by 2024, we expect all our allies to invest 20 percent of defense spending on procurement,” he said.

Townsend said the speech “was not well received at all; he came across as a bully.”

In comparison, allies “were relieved” by Shanahan’s appearances.

“He talked about the 2 percent and everything, but he didn’t threaten. He wasn’t rude about it,” Townsend said. 

European allies have been further worried after Mattis, one of the strongest supporters of NATO, resigned in December over disagreements with Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria.

In his resignation letter he cited differences of opinion with Trump on alliances, mentioning NATO twice.

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote.

“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

Allies are also wary of the uncertainty surrounding Shanahan’s position. Though Trump has praised Shanahan’s work and said he “could be there for a long time,” there is no certainty that he will be formally nominated for the position.

Even U.S. lawmakers question his standing as defense chief. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase MORE (R-Okla.) said last week that “if you’re an acting, you don’t have the force you need in the office … I think (Trump) is going to nominate somebody.”

Inhofe also said that Shanahan does not have the same “humility” as Mattis.

Shanahan, meanwhile, has said he is “happy to serve the country in any capacity the president asks me to.”

“The Department of Defense is an amazing institution. And whether there’s an ‘acting’ next to your name or not, it’s the same job. I’ll do the job the same way and it’s a pleasure to serve in this role," Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon in January.