War Stories

Who Needs a Secretary of Defense, Anyway?

Trump is in no hurry to find permanent leadership for the Pentagon.

James Mattis with question marks over his face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by U.S. Department of Defense.

The Pentagon is in shambles, and President Donald Trump likes it like that.

No one has been in charge since James Mattis at the end of last year. There’s an acting secretary of defense and an acting deputy secretary; the latter is also the department’s full-time chief financial officer. Decision-making power has devolved to the military services—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines—but they’re teetering too, now that Trump has also announced a successor to the nation’s top military officer nearly a year before the current one’s term is up, thus diminishing his authority too.

How long can the Defense Department run on autopilot, with its $717 billion budget and its more than 2 million employees (including 1.3 million active-duty service members)? Trump seems more than willing to go for a record.

“I like ‘acting,’ ” Trump once said, when asked about the unusually large number of people serving as Cabinet secretaries without having yet been nominated, much less confirmed. “It gives me more flexibility.”

Steve Bannon once called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and that’s one goal that his protégé in chief is still pursuing. Trump wants to concentrate power in his small circle inside the White House, and to the extent delegation to others is necessary, he wants them to fear and tremble before him.

Restricting these power sharers to the status of temp workers makes them more pliant to Trump’s wishes, less attentive to their duties as advocates for their departments or as dispensers of advice, and not at all accountable to the public or Congress.

The acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, is clearly auditioning for the permanent job. And one lesson he learned from watching his predecessor, Mattis, is that the way to win Trump’s favor is to bow down as low as possible. Mattis famously disagreed with Trump on high-profile issues, developed programs for NATO in ultra-low profile, declined to enforce Trump’s ban on transgender troops, delayed sending him new plans for an attack on North Korea, and finally, in December, resigned in protest—a move that so angered Trump, he forced Mattis to leave immediately rather than letting him stay a month, as he had offered. By contrast, when Trump came to the Pentagon in January to promote an expanded missile defense program, Shanahan introduced the commander in chief with the preening gusto of the warmup act at a Spiritual Living convention.

Shanahan is touring Afghanistan and Iraq this week, to show off his as-yet-unseen—and perhaps nonexistent—policy chops. He moved up to acting secretary less than a year and a half as deputy secretary of defense (a very different, strictly managerial position), preceded by three decades as an executive at Boeing, the second-largest U.S. defense contractor.*

James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is apparently unimpressed. According to Inside Defense, Inhofe recently advised Trump to nominate someone else as secretary, noting Shanahan’s lack of “humility” and his “partisan” leanings to Boeing. This was an odd spectacle. “Humility” is a quality that fits almost no defense secretary in history, very much including Mattis, and while Shanahan’s Boeing background subjects him to enormous conflicts of interest, the rumblings of the military-industrial complex are usually not so bothersome to the likes of Inhofe.

Still, it bodes ill for Shanahan that he is, for whatever reason, disliked by the top senator on the committee that would vote on his confirmation, if he were nominated, and his department’s budget.

The devolution of power inside the Pentagon from civilian policymakers to military officers—essentially a weakening of civilian control over the military—is a separate phenomenon, though it also feeds into Trump’s self-aggrandizing agenda. The trend, which strong civilian defense secretaries have often fought hard to resist, was given a strong push in 2015, when Sen. John McCain pushed through an amendment shifting authority in weapons acquisition away from a centralized office in the Pentagon to the individual military services. McCain’s intent was to streamline the process and make the services more accountable, but it also boosted parochial interests and weakened civilian oversight. The next push came from Mattis, who, as a retired Marine four-star general, was naturally disposed to rely more on fellow officers—the service chiefs and their staff—than on civilians who might never have fought in combat.

These moves, together, led to an exodus of talented civilian specialists and analysts from the Pentagon—and also strengthened Trump’s power, as military officers are trained to salute, not to argue with, the president.

Even this ascension of the brass took a tumble when, in December, Trump announced that Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, would be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—almost a year before the term of the current chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is due to expire. This undercuts Dunford’s authority, leaves the unified elements of the military rudderless, and—combined with the other trends put in motion by McCain and Mattis—elevates still higher the status of the separate services: a situation bound to cause more waste, inefficiency, and lax discipline in the military budget and in military operations.

In the spring of 2018, shortly after firing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and replacing him with the more amenable Mike Pompeo, Trump said, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet, and other things, that I want.” Soon after came the ouster of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, succeeded by John Bolton; then Mattis’ resignation, followed, as yet, by a long, demeaning audition process.

But Trump is getting what he wants: a Cabinet of yes men. The Defense Department is an enormous machine: far from well-oiled, but capable of running on its own steam for some time without breaking down or ripping out of control. But if there’s another war or a crisis, or even some situation that could use some smart, fairly independent military advice, Trump will be in more trouble than he knows—and so will the rest of us.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2019: This article originally misstated that Patrick Shanahan had served just five months as deputy secretary of defense. He held that position for one year and five months.