New Delhi: Mark Esper, an army veteran and former defense industry lobbyist, was confirmed as the new US Defense Secretary, ending a record-length vacancy in the post in American history. The vote was unusually bipartisan and Esper was backed by an overwhelming margin of 90-8 in the Senate.
Esper was sworn in on Tuesday, hours after the voting. He will replace Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, who resigned in December last year over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria. Mattis felt that this was a betrayal of US allies, which had been one of his consistent criticisms of Trump’s foreign policy and that they were ceding key territory to Russia and Iran.
Mattis was widely regarded as a ‘voice of reason’ within the Trump administration. His experience and rational temperament counterbalanced Trump’s unpredictable and often rash leadership style.
Policy-making since then was largely left in the hands of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Both Bolton and Pompeo are the Iran hawks pushing Trump to adopt a military response as part of their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities.
Trump had initially nominated acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who resigned last month while he was under investigation by the FBI for allegations of domestic violence.
Prior to the allegations, Shanahan had also struggled to convince US lawmakers that he would be competent in the permanent position after a series of blunders, including backing Trump’s Space Force — a new branch of the US military dedicated to fighting wars in space — plagued his reputation.
Since Mattis’ resignation last year, there have been three acting defense secretaries under the Trump administration. This is not the only position that Trump has struggled to fill — Homeland Security, Labour, and the Small Business Administration all have acting directors. The last time all 21 Cabinet-level positions were occupied was in March 2018.
Who is Mark Esper?
Esper has spent most of his career in the military and government. After completing his studies at the US Military Academy, also known as West Point, he went on to earn a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and a Ph.D from the George Washington University. While at West Point, Esper was Pompeo’s classmate.
Esper served as a member of the US Army’s Infantry Branch and fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which gave him insight about internal mechanics of the force. The Army veteran’s knowledge about Cold War-era alliances and military affairs is also likely to bolster his abilities in influencing Trump on a range of other issues, including withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.
A US defense secretary can also strongly influence which weapons the Pentagon buys — something that was earlier criticised as a potential conflict of interest by Democrat Senator and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren.
Esper had also worked as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor, for seven years before joining the Pentagon in 2017 as secretary of the Army.
Challenges facing Esper
The Trump administration is currently in the middle of a diplomatic conflict with Turkey after the US ally ignored the President’s request to purchase Raytheon missiles in favour of Russian-made weapons. But one of the biggest challenges facing Esper is mitigating the fractured relationship between US and Iran.
Like Trump, Esper also believes that the US has not viewed China as “a big enough threat”.
Mattis, on the other hand, had often disagreed with Trump. He was able to block implementation of some of the President’s more controversial policies such as ban on transgender people serving in the military and the Space Force.
In contrast, Shanahan was largely viewed as Trump’s ‘yes man’, often agreeing to the latter’s foreign policy decisions without giving them the scrutiny that Mattis did.
The Congress, though, is uncertain of Esper’s influence on the administration even as his relationship with Pompeo may help him exert a similar impact which the Bolton-Pompeo combination had on Trump’s foreign policy.