Pentagon Shakeup Creates ‘Layers of Fear,’ Lawmaker Says
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s appointment of Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret and White House counterterrorism coordinator, as acting defense secretary raises “two layers of fear,” the head of the House Armed Services panel said.
The first is the “incredibly steep learning curve” on global military operations, options and controversies that Miller faces after Trump’s dismissal-by-tweet of Mark Esper as Pentagon chief, said Democratic Representative Adam Smith of Washington.
The second, Smith said in an interview, is whether Miller would have the ability and inclination to talk the lame-duck president “off the edge” of an impromptu decision of global consequence, such as delivering on his tweet pledging to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Christmas or his past threats to pull the U.S. out of NATO.
“The fear would be the president wakes up one day in the next few months and decides that he wants to do something like that, and a brand new secretary of defense doesn’t know how to stop him, doesn’t know how to say ‘Mr. President, here’s the limitations of what you are talking about doing and here’s what we need to do,”’ Smith said.
Smith’s scenarios reflect confusion in Washington over the motivation for the president’s abrupt post-election elevation of Miller and installation to key posts of several other Trump loyalists with limited experience in the Defense Department’s inner workings.
“Of course it’s of concern to see the upheaval,” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for President-elect Joe Biden, told reporters on Friday. “It should be of concern to anybody, because there shouldn’t be a politicization of the military.”
Without setting out details of new deadlines to bring U.S. troops home from abroad, Miller said in a memo Friday to all Defense Department employees that “ending wars requires compromise and partnership.”
“We met the challenge; we gave it our all,” Miller said in the memo, reported earlier by McClatchy news. “Now, it‘s time to come home.”
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month expressing concerns about additional troop cuts, citing two senior officials it didn’t identify.
The debate among defense analysts is whether the president, reputed to have fired Esper for being insufficiently loyal, was simply opting for his opposite by installing enthusiastic boosters -- or whether they were put in place to deliver on tangible policy changes in the closing weeks of his administration.
There’s “worry that these are considered deep loyalists to Trump and therefore may have an agenda beyond the scope of the job,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. “Was it smart to fire Esper and other leaders? No. The decision was emotional and misguided. It takes time to learn the ways of the Pentagon, and this self-inflicted instability is unhelpful.”
The new appointees include Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a friend of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, to serve as acting under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, and Anthony Tata to serve in the role of under secretary for policy. Tata’s previous nomination to that position foundered amid controversy over past remarks, including derogatory comments about Islam.
White House National Security Council staffer Kash Patel was named Miller’s chief of staff. Patel has close ties to Republican Representative Devin Nunes, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee helped lead opposition to the probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election by the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“When you promote loyalists at the last minute you’re taking the job knowing what the conditions are,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. “If the president fires people to basically create the image of trying to preserve his authority and impact as long as possible, the question you have for anyone who has gotten these appointments is ‘What is the real mission?’”
Whatever the goal, the abrupt moves were a shock to the Defense Department’s system.
“The Pentagon typically likes to follow ‘regular order’ with military and civilian turnover, and there is normally more time for advance planning and then an orderly transition,” said retired Marine Major General Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board and new chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association. “This does not appear to be the case with the recent changes.”
Smith, the House Armed Services chairman, said “you’ve got a lot of relatively inexperienced people with their hands on the wheel.”
But he added that he spoke briefly by phone with Miller, the acting secretary, who “doesn’t seem like a terrible guy” and “wants to do the job right.” Smith said Miller promised to keep Congress informed “so that’s encouraging.”
The Defense Department said in a statement on Friday that Miller used a meeting with Lithuania’s defense minister to reassure world leaders that it “remains strong and continues its vital work of protecting our homeland, our people and our interests around the world.” He also phoned a number of his counterparts in allied nations.
Miller, a former Army Special Forces officer, has told a Senate committee that he’s been “directly and viscerally involved in our nation’s fight against international terrorism since 1998.” He drafted and completed Trump’s first counterterrorism strategy, and is said to have impressed the president when he helped lay the groundwork for the October 2019 special operations raid in Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“A zillion things could have gone wrong with that and they didn’t,” said Javed Ali, Miller’s NSC predecessor in the counterterrorism office. “It was a significant achievement. Chris was sort of the point person for the policy side of that.”
While lawmakers and analysts struggle to divine Miller’s mission, the turmoil makes the U.S. vulnerable to adversaries, said Andrew Bacevich, a military and international relations historian.
“If our adversaries are plotting against us, then the disarray that Trump has caused in the national security apparatus simply increases our vulnerability,” he said in an interview. “It presents an opportunity -- if our adversaries are looking for an opportunity -- that’s the worst thing. What’s really going on here is that the president has ceased to govern.”
Smith and analysts said that despite the churn, the military’s uniformed leaders, led by General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, will provide “guardrails” until Biden in inaugurated.
“Senior uniformed leaders and career civil servants will keep the watch during this domestic turmoil, and we’ll be fine,” Eaglen said.
Among potential moves by the outgoing U.S. leader, if Trump were to issue an order to speed up withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bacevich said, the military commanders “would not disobey. They would not resign in protest but they would kind of slow-walk their execution of the order.”
“They can run the clock out,” he said.
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