WASHINGTON — One year ago the defense secretary was James Mattis and the Pentagon was feeling good about a tough, persistent campaign to rid ISIS of its ground holdings in western Syria. Mattis had reassured NATO allies of continued U.S engagement, was nudging Asian allies to get tougher on China and was the recipient of record-setting Pentagon budget largess from Congress.
A year — and two defense secretaries later — the hard-won gains against ISIS have turned into rewards for the Turks and Russians in Syria. President Trump has become an activist president in regard to deciding the Pentagon policy. China has strengthened its hold on islands in the South China Sea and launched another new aircraft carrier. Russia unveiled a hypersonic weapon. The US embassy in Baghdad is under siege and the Pentagon offered up the option — which was taken — to assassinate a senior Iranian leader.
And the U.S. is at war again in Korea — a war of words with North Korea and a war of budget with South Korea.
For a Pentagon with two new leaders hoping to reassure allies and have a firm role in leadership in the Trump administration, one year after its last stability brings anything but a coherent, firm and seemingly well-designed policy.
“I was briefly reminded of the end of Animal House when Otter says, ‘This situation requires that a futile and stupid act be done on somebody’s part.’ And Bluto answers, ‘And we’re just the guys to do it!’,” Earl Tilford, a military historian and retired Air Force intelligence officer, told TMN in an interview.
“It strikes me, that if I was sitting in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang and I wanted to ‘put one over’ on the Americans I might be tempted to think, ‘This is the time’,” he said. “If one or more of our potential enemies miscalculates, the result might initiate a chain reaction leading to catastrophe.”
The foreign Rubik’s Cube twisting Pentagon overseas policy is joined by domestic challenges that, likewise, have shown little suggestion in easing.
U.S. active troops have sat on the U.S.-Mexico border for more than a year, with no light at the end of the wall. There are rising concerns about white nationalism and a breakdown of discipline in the ranks of the services — concerns flexed in part by Trump’s pardon of a convicted war criminal — all while numbers of sexual assaults rise. The Marines keep trying to find ways to take islands in the 21st century and not succeeding. A bevy of key civilian leadership positions in the Pentagon remains unfilled, joined now by a growing normal exodus of senior staff as Trump’s first term enters its last year.
In one of its recent “Bad Ideas in National Security” series, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that the “perennial search for rigidity in strategic choice—particularly regarding what we will not do and where we will not do it—risks leaving the United States vulnerable in the face of emergent challenges and shifts in American political winds.”
While not taking a specific stance on individual issues, the CSIS analysis – conducted by its Defense 360 project — said creating rigid lists of what the U.S. will and will not do is the national security equivalent of investing only in a single stock.
“It banks on a degree of certainty that history fails to support,” the CSIS analysis said. “Of course, we could be brilliant or get lucky. Perhaps our strategic choice will have been the equivalent of investing in Apple in 2002, which is today worth 130 times more. However, our risks are magnified in a volatile environment, which today might be both the international and domestic landscapes. Moreover, the stakes in national security are high, certainly higher than for a risk-taking stock investor.”
For many, it seems far longer than a year when Mattis and others in the Pentagon were able to look at each other with knowing eyes and see that they did beat ISIS on the ground and could now take the next steps. They could look at Afghanistan with a modicum of optimism that a political deal could be struck and that China’s military leaders were at least talking to Pentagon counterparts.
Mattis resigned, saying the president needed a defense secretary who agrees with his foreign policy approach. He was replaced by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from consideration for the top job because of personal issues. Army Secretary Mark Esper was nominated and quickly confirmed.
Esper was asked in late December to reflect on the past year and what is next for him and Gen. Mark Milley, the new chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He ljoked “he can’t escape me and I can’t escape him, for some reason.
“I think we have a strong team, happy with the — with the commanders we have out in the field as well. So, everything looks good,” he said.
Some analysts think the Pentagon has been in too many areas and that a sharp focus on primary concerns — Russia and China first, Iran and North Korea after that — is paramount.
“President Trump needs to surround himself with (advisors) who think the way he does.” Daniel Davis, a retired lieutenant colonel who is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities, told TMN in an interview. He said all the side issues and distractions weaken the Pentagon’s ability to fight the critical fights.
“Forget about what may or may not be happening,” Davis said. “Things change rapidly and we have to always be ready to potentially counter the threat from Russia and China.”
Like others, Davis acknowledged that evens “can always spiral out of control.”
Tilford said he is not concerned that there is a crisis in leadership but that the military is “like a midget on steroids.
“Do we have the stamina for a long war? Are we ready for a two or three or four front war? Are we ready for cyberwar? Might our potential enemies think we are “ripe for the picking” given internal bickering,” he said. “A miscalculation on anyone’s part, the temptation to think ‘this situation requires that a stupid and futile act be done on somebody’s part,’ might get out of hand very quickly.”