Mark Esper takes reins as U.S. Defense Secretary amid series of challenges

With his eye on an increasingly assertive China, Israel might have to think twice about it's growing ties with the Asian superpower.

Mark Esper talks to reporters as he arrives for the first day on job as New U.S. Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. July 24, 2019.  (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)
Mark Esper talks to reporters as he arrives for the first day on job as New U.S. Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. July 24, 2019.
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)
Seven months after General James Mattis left his post following a series of policy disputes with US President Donald Trump, Army veteran Mark Esper has been appointed secretary of defense.
Confirmed by the Senate in a 90-8 vote, Esper is taking the reins from acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.
Esper comes into his new role amid a series of global challenges, including mounting tensions with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, and growing military concerns posed by Russia and China in the Middle East. With heightening tensions in the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon has announced two new troop deployments to the Middle East totaling to about 2,500 troops.
For Israel, which is fighting Iranian entrenchment in Syria, it is imperative that Esper understands the intricate difficulties in the region. Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin was quoted by JNS saying that Esper “understands the strategic relationship with Israel, and also understands that the alternative is no alternative.
“It’s hard to say a defense secretary should be more ‘pro-Arab’ when even the moderate Arab states are generally now allied with Israel,” Rubin continued. “Esper is cautious on Iran, but then again, so is most of the Pentagon. That said, if given the order to utilize the military against Iran, Esper is someone who knows both the risks and the full range of options, and will do what’s needed for victory.”
But Esper, who served as Pacific war planner on the Army Staff – the branch’s senior leadership body in the 1990s – has long pushed Washington to take a harder stance against the increasingly assertive China, telling Reuters in April that “we may be a little bit late. We are late, coming to the recognition that we are in a strategic competition with China. The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me. That is both the foundation and the shaping of my views on these various issues, because I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now.”
At an Atlantic Council event in May, Esper said that Russia and China have been rapidly modernizing their militaries to the point that American military superiority has eroded.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the US military has maintained an unparalleled overmatch on the battlefield, but that gap has narrowed,” Esper said. “Today, Russia and China are aggressively developing formations and capabilities and weapons systems that deny us that long-held advantage.”
Israel may feel a stronger blowback from Washington with Esper in office, as Israel has coordinated with Russia over Syria, and has allowed a Chinese company to operate parts of the Haifa port for the next 25 years. Washington has already warned Jerusalem that Chinese involvement in Haifa port activities is a blow to US national security.
Esper’s old classmate, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, warned Israel that the US may scale back intelligence cooperation over the port deal. While Esper is a strong supporter of Israel, especially with regards to Iran, Jerusalem should be wary of its continued dealings with Beijing.
Unlike his predecessor, who faced intense criticism over lack of experience in national security matters, Esper has significant military and foreign policy experience, which is a necessary prerequisite for addressing concerns in the wartorn Middle East.
Esper graduated from West Point alongside Pompeo and served in the 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer, participating in the Gulf War with the “Screaming Eagles.” The combat veteran infantry officer retired from the US Army in 2007 after 10 years of active duty, and served as secretary of the army from November 20, 2017 to June 24, 2019, and for a week from July 15, 2019 to July 23, 2019.
After leaving the army, he worked as a senior staffer on Capitol Hill and spent years as a senior defense industry and policy expert, serving as senior policy adviser to former Senator Chuck Hagel. Esper was also senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Government Affairs committees, as well as policy director for the House Armed Services Committee.
Entering office in the midst of mounting threats by Iran, Russia and China, Esper will have to smooth over the concerns of many allies in the region, especially Israel. The toughest battles of this decorated general may just be ahead of him.
On Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on members to support Esper.
“The nominee is beyond qualified. His record of public service is beyond impressive. His commitment to serving our service members is beyond obvious. And the need for a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense is beyond urgent,” McConnell said.
Four of the eight “No” votes came from senators running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination - Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

Reuters contributed to this report.