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With Mattis Out, How Will The Pentagon Transition Under Shanahan?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In this new year, there is change afoot at the Pentagon. After the abrupt exit of former Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, Patrick Shanahan steps up to become the acting secretary of defense. He was Mattis' No. 2, the deputy secretary of defense. And his background is in defense contracting. So what difference will his leadership make at the Pentagon? We're going to ask Todd Harrison. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Todd, good morning. And Happy New Year.

TODD HARRISON: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Mattis, as you know, was a well-respected leader, had the respect of troops. He got a lot of bipartisan support. And he left in this controversial way, citing real, substantive differences with the president. That's going to mean a difficult challenge to navigate, I imagine, for Patrick Shanahan. How does he step into the breach?

HARRISON: Yeah. So I think, in some ways, it's going to be difficult. In some ways, it might be easier. So Patrick Shanahan comes into the job, really, with a background in business and engineering. He actually came from the commercial side of Boeing, not the defense side. And so what he was brought in to do as deputy secretary of defense is kind of run the back-office side of DOD, the business side. And Secretary Mattis focused on where he was most comfortable - on, you know, handling ongoing military operations, strategy, foreign policy, those types of issues. And that's where Secretary Mattis tended to clash with President Trump.

So now you've got Deputy Secretary Shanahan stepping into that role as acting secretary. And he doesn't come with the same kind of policy agenda or, you know, strongly held views about ongoing military operations, how they should be conducted, where we should be in the world, where we should not be. So in some sense, you know, he may be a bit less prepared than Mattis was. But he's also - that's going to make him less likely to clash with the president on some of these issues.

MARTIN: Does that also mean he will be less likely to push back against the president, as Jim Mattis was known for doing? Advocating for a slower or reconsidered troop withdrawal from Syria, for example, or pulling out of Afghanistan. He was quite vocal to the president, talking about what he thought should happen there. Is Shanahan not likely to do that?

HARRISON: Yeah, I think we'll have to wait and see. But I don't think Shanahan is, you know, going to come to the job with the same strongly held views that Mattis had. So, you know, I would expect he probably doesn't push back as much. And, you know, even if he did, it's not going to carry the same weight in this administration as it did when Secretary Mattis was pushing back because Mattis, of course, was a well-respected, you know, four-star general who had, you know, previously been a combatant commander, had served in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so I don't think, you know, Shanahan's resistance to these types of moves by the Trump administration would actually carry that much weight.

MARTIN: All right. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic Studies talking about the change in leadership at the Pentagon. The former deputy secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, begins his first day as acting secretary of defense. Todd, thanks. We appreciate it.

HARRISON: Glad I could do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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