Patrick Shanahan’s turbulent six months

Acting Defense Secretary presided over the final defeat of ISIS, a crises with Iran aand Turkey and creation of a new ‘Space force’.

June 19, 2019 17:58
3 minute read.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during the Missile Defense Review

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during the Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S.. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)


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Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan suddenly announced on Tuesday that he would not continue the confirmation process to become secretary of defense. US President Donald Trump praised him for his service and named a new acting secretary, Mark Esper. It was a turbulent six months under Shanahan, who was overshadowed by his previous boss, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Shanahan came to the Defense Department as the deputy secretary of defense in 2017. He served uneventfully in that position until Trump decided to withdraw from Syria in December 2018. James Mattis resigned in the wake of Trump’s decision and Shanahan was tapped to take over the department at a key time. A former Boeing executive for decades, Shanahan certainly understood the business and technological side of the US military. When he took the reins of the department, he said he wanted to keep America’s armed forces “lethal and agile.”

Almost immediately, he had to face a growing crisis in Syria. A terrorist attack by ISIS killed several Americans in January and Shanahan would have known that there was a crisis in confidence about the US effort in Syria. If the US was leaving, then the Syrian regime and Turkey would compete for influence. He hosted the Global Coalition against ISIS in Washington in early February and then went to Afghanistan. The US was also seeking to leave Afghanistan.

While Syria and Afghanistan were on Shanahan’s list of things to deal with, the Trump administration was pushing the creation of a “Space Force” that would be the sixth branch of the Armed Forces. Shanahan spoke repeatedly about the importance of this new part of the military. He helped lay its ground work.

The acting Defense Secretary also had to deal with a crisis with Turkey. Ankara is seeking to acquire Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which has strained ties with Washington. Under Shanahan, the US has tried to convince Turkey to go back on its decision and threatened to end Turkey’s role in the F-35 program. Shanahan had to make tough choices here to begin the process to freeze Turkey out of the F-35.

On the ISIS front, Shanahan was able to declare victory over the “caliphate” on March 23, when the last remnants of ISIS were defeated in Syria. ISIS continues to be a threat, but the US was able to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat the last area it tried to hold on to. This resulted in more than 40,000 ISIS members and families fleeing to displaced persons camps. The US has not figured out what will be done with these people, including thousands of dangerous detainees. Some children have been repatriated, but more hardened ISIS members are still in Syria.

The US also approved several deployments in the Middle East amid a rising crises with Iran. In May, Shanahan announced the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to CENTCOM. He also managed the deployment of B-52s and the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Force. These naval assets were in the Gulf of Oman to help rescue sailors from an oil tanker attacked on June 13. The US says Iran attacked the tanker. On June 17, in one of his last acts on the job, Shanahan said the US would send 1,000 more troops.

For any secretary of defense, dealing with a crisis with Turkey and Iran, fighting ISIS and managing US partnerships with traditional allies around the world would be a success story. Shanahan accomplished a lot in six months. He didn’t continue his confirmation process after domestic dispute incidents from many years ago appeared to cloud the process.

As for Israel, Shanahan doesn’t seem to have had many public high level meetings with Israeli officials. In 2017 he met Udi Adam, the defense ministry’s director-general, when Shanahan was still a deputy. It’s not clear if his history at Boeing impacted Israel much. Israel has been reportedly considering new Boeing F-15s and Bell Helicopter – which makes the V-22 Osprey with Boeing – was at a recent Israeli defense expo.

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