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How Shanahan's Exit From The Department Of Defense Will Impact National Security


For more on how this shift at the top of the Defense Department may impact national security, we turn now to Michael O'Hanlon. He's a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Thank you, Ari - nice to be with you.

SHAPIRO: So the U.S. has now gone almost six months without a Senate-confirmed defense secretary. With Shanahan out, that's going to go on longer. What difference does that make practically?

O'HANLON: You know, I think we're in this lucky sweet spot or moment where General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs that you referred to in your earlier reporting, is still there through the summer. And that's been a major steadying influence. A lot of the combatant commanders under Dunford and some of the other joint chiefs also have a lot of experience - not that that kind of job or that role can replace the position of secretary of defense of course. But I think that, given all the other unusual aspects of this administration, the absence of a confirmed secretary of defense has not been high on my list of worries so far.

Now, as things drag on, that can change. General Dunford's going to retire at the end of this summer, for example. And of course, you mentioned as well with the Tom Bowman reporting that, you know, Bolton and Pompeo have a lot of influence. That may not always be ideal. You may need another strong voice in there. So as time goes by, I get more concerned. But so far, I think we've been OK.

SHAPIRO: Right. Well, specifically, when you look at the growing tension with Iran, just today, Secretary of State Pompeo spoke at CENTCOM headquarters about Iran and the decision to move a thousand more American troops to the region. I mean, how does the fact that there is no permanent head of the Pentagon overseeing those 1,000 troops affect things at this growing moment - at this moment of growing hostility?

O'HANLON: I worry about the lack of a countervailing voice to Pompeo and Bolton on the Iran issue specifically. I think it's such a fraught issue with the potential of course to go in a very dangerous direction. There's - it's not an obvious play where you can figure out sort of the most logical next moves by the adversary and we just move a few more forces here to deter. Iran may continue to try to shut down or at least largely incapacitate oil and other fuel moving through the broader Strait of Hormuz region because of course we're squeezing them so hard.

So this could get a lot uglier and a lot more complex. So it's not so much that I miss having just someone with the formal title of secretary of defense. I'd like to see somebody with the stature to potentially take Bolton and Pompeo on if they push too hard.

SHAPIRO: Does Mark Esper have that stature if he's confirmed? Is he less hawkish than Bolton and Pompeo? Does he have the gravitas to push back on them?

O'HANLON: Yes and no. I think he's a very smart guy, very experienced. I think he can choose to stand up to them if he so wishes, and there's no reason he shouldn't. I don't know his views on Iran specifically, but it's going to be a little hard. He's known as a very bright guy who's been a Washington insider for many years after being an accomplished soldier, as you reported earlier. But he's below the radar screen. He's not a big name. He's very accomplished in his Army career - in the secretary of the Army position these last 2 1/2 years.

But it's going to be - you know, it's going to be a stretch for him to walk into a situation room meeting and really disagree with Bolton or Pompeo if that's his inclination. So yes, as time goes by and an issue like Iran comes up, this becomes a greater worry. I'm a big supporter of Mark Esper, but it's a tough moment to come into that role.

SHAPIRO: You said you don't know where he stands on Iran. What about Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, North Korea? Is there any public record of where he stands on these very important issues?

O'HANLON: Well, you know, he's worked for Senator Frist when Frist was an important senator. He's a secretary...

SHAPIRO: This is Bill Frist, the former Republican leader of the Senate, yeah.

O'HANLON: Exactly. And so he's been associated with sort of classic conservative but moderate conservative officials and arguments. I know him quite well. We've had him to Brookings a number of times for public events. He tends to avoid the big policy debates when he's acting as secretary of the Army because in that job, he's sort of taking care of the Army with modernization decisions, with family and quality-of-life decisions for the troops. So he's going to have to now go to a different place than he's been responsible for being in the last few years. It's going to be a big transition.

SHAPIRO: He also spent a lot of time at Raytheon. He was a top lobbyist for them before he became secretary of the Army. Like Shanahan, there may be concerns about ethics, conflicts of interest. Do you think that is likely to affect his performance in this job?

O'HANLON: No. I think - I have very high regard. You're right to ask the question. Obviously some senators might ask the question if he ever is nominated formally for the position. But I think that what I know of Mark - very high integrity, very good, solid guy. And the fact that he worked for Raytheon should broaden his worldview beyond Army stuff alone.

So Air Force and Navy and high-tech proponents out there who know that Raytheon makes a lot of the best stuff in the country for those services writ large I think can be comforted in knowing that Mark Esper has had a broad view of the nation's military requirements for, you know, the entire time he's been doing that kind of work. But again, I think the bigger job is going to be - the bigger change is going to be for him to elevate into that policy debate.

SHAPIRO: Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, thanks for your time today.

O'HANLON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

All Things Considered