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Questions SecDef nominee Shanahan should – but won’t – be asked

Gregory D. Foster
National Defense University

Having served for five months as Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan now awaits his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to remove the “acting” from his title.

With the Senate in Republican hands, there is no – again, no – possibility he won’t be confirmed. That said, there are bound to be contentious moments in the hearing revolving around such questions as his relationship with Boeing, his long-time employer; stationing troops along the southern U.S. border to interdict migrants; deploying troops to the Middle East; providing nuclear know-how to Saudi Arabia; dealing, militarily or otherwise, with the likes of Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela; the ban on transgender personnel in uniform; etc.

There are two lines of inquiry, though, based on specific statements Shanahan himself has made, that should – but undoubtedly won’t – warrant attention. The first was his statement that “We are not the Department of No.”

Though made in response to a question about where he stands on the creation of the U.S. Space Force directed by President Donald Trump, the statement has broader implications for civilian control of the military and civil-military relations more generally.

Shanahan’s predecessor, James Mattis, arguably never made the effective transition from uniform to mufti to face up to the contradictions associated with being the principal civilian in charge of the military.

The second statement, repeated more than once by Shanahan, was this: “If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy … so our remarkable soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe.”

The significance of this statement lies in the unquestioning commitment of the Secretary-designate to a Pentagon document that, highly flawed, has nonetheless assumed the status of Holy Writ and occupied a position of perhaps-irrevocable centrality in defining America’s strategic posture for the foreseeable future.

Here, then, are some questions that, if asked (whether answered or not), almost assuredly would shed much-needed light on the thinking of the man who is about to officially occupy what, for all intents and purposes, is the most important post in the land today.

US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan testifies before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee
US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan testifies before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the fiscal year 2020 Department of Defense budget request, Washington, D.C., May 8, 2019. Image: Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense

Question: You, along with the President in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, constitute the National Command Authority, the ultimate source of direction to the U.S. military. In that capacity, you also sit at the pinnacle of the executive branch’s role in exercising the time-honored democratic precept of civilian control over the military.

The U.S. military, in turn, as part of the tacit but binding social contract of civil-military relations, is expected to dutifully obey civilian authority and remain politically neutral. This might be seen to suggest that if the military is to be used as it should be and to thereby be protected from misuse, overuse, and abuse, it depends on the Secretary of Defense to provide political cover.

An unnamed senior Pentagon official was reported to have said recently that the job of the Secretary of Defense is “to be deferential to the president” and “to enact the president’s intent.” How do you see your role as Secretary of Defense – as being a dutifully compliant extension of the President who unquestioningly enacts his directives or, conversely, an extension of the military who seeks to ensure that it is protected from politics? Absent a willingness on your part to protect the military, does this jeopardize those in uniform, who are forced to choose between obedience and disobedience in the face of politically motivated orders?

US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to troops at Yokota Air Base in Japan
US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to troops at Yokota Air Base on November 5, 2017, in Tokyo, Japan. Image: Shealah Craighead/White House

Question: Civilian control of the military has long been recognized, in this country and abroad, as a fundamental precondition for democratic governance. Although in Article II of the Constitution, the President is designated commander in chief of the armed forces, Congress in Article I is accorded many enumerated powers that give it a principal role in exercising civilian control.

The military, it is fair to say, rarely acknowledges and is reluctant to unconditionally concede this congressional role. To what extent can Congress count on you, as Secretary of Defense, to accept and accede to congressional prerogative in providing direction to, oversight of, and final decision-making authority for the military?

Are there particular matters – such as force structure, doctrine, and operational employment, for example – for which you would consciously decline to seek congressional consultation, consent, and/or approval? In contrast, are there matters – such as blatant politicization by the commander in chief – you would feel obligated to forestall or prevent in the interest of institutional protection?

U.S. Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment carry a simulated casualty to an MV-22 Osprey during an exercise in southwest Asia, May 23, 2016. Image: US Marine Corps/Cpl. Trever Statz

Question: Arguably the most important of Congress’s constitutional powers vis-à-vis the military is the power to declare war. The underlying premise of the war power, of course, is that committing the military to hostilities – real or potential – and thereby exposing U.S. citizens in uniform to the ultimate sacrifice, demands the consent of the governed through their elected representatives.

Even if the 1973 War Powers Resolution is seen as a reaffirmation (rather than an abrogation) of congressional prerogative, our practice over the past seven-plus decades has been to circumvent, skirt, ignore, and deny the proper role of the people’s representatives in licensing the use of the military for the prosecution of war.

At best, the practice has become to notify Congress after the fact rather than to consult it for approval beforehand – the enduring, still-in-effect Cold War rationalization being the urgency of the moment. Beyond this, the dramatically expanded use of special operations forces in recent years has exacerbated the situation, since the military resolutely claims it engages only in clandestine (secret) activities that, as an integral component of normal military operations, need not be reported; not covert (secret and deniable) activities, which by law require congressional notification in the form of presidential “findings.”

Considering the range of contemporary situations that regularly face us and ostensibly seem to call for the use of force, what can Congress expect of you in terms of your willingness to consult and seek approval from Congress before committing U.S. forces abroad? Is there, in fact, anything short of a nuclear attack by a major adversary that would warrant, in your mind, ignoring or circumventing Congress in the service of “clear and present danger”?

US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan speaks at the US Naval Academy's 2019 class graduation
US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan receives a robe with “Class of 2019” embroidered on it from the US Naval Academy’s 2019 graduating class during their graduation and commissioning ceremony in Annapolis, Md., May 24, 2019. Image: US Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense

Question: There is an argument to be made that, in return for the political neutrality and deference to civilian authority expected of the military, the military in turn expects strategically competent civilian direction and oversight that isn’t driven by self-serving political expediency and convenience.

You have repeatedly stated your commitment to the so-called National Defense Strategy issued in early 2018, as if it somehow represents a truly coherent strategic architecture for the future rather than a politically motivated ideological tract that, some would say, is nothing more than a militaristic call for a New Cold War.

In fact, the document’s two most glaring assertions are (1) that the world we face today is one defined by Great Power competition (nothing less or different); and (2) that focusing on “lesser” contingencies such as terrorism, as the Obama administration is accused of doing, has brought about the atrophy of America’s strategic posture. How do you justify such a position as representing an expression of true strategic competence, especially to the extent that it may be seen by audiences both foreign and domestic as militaristic, provocative, inward- and backward-looking, institutionally self-serving, and potentially a war-inducing self-fulfilling prophecy?

US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan at the US southern border
US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan are greeted by the Commander of US Northern Command, Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy upon arrival in McAllen, Texas, to visit the US southern border, May 11, 2019. Image: US Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense

Question: Where civil-military relations are healthy, as we like to think they are in this country, the military expects and has a right to expect strategically competent civilian direction and oversight as the price of its conditional deference (or silent obedience). But the military also is expected, in turn, to be strategically effective – not just militarily effective, especially if that comes at the expense of larger strategic aims, priorities, and overall well-being.

Some would say, facilely, that being strategically effective means simply possessing the capability to carry out the dictates of an articulated strategy, such as the NDS purports to be. But if being strategically effective means nothing more than that, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the predominant propositions and suppositions embodied in the NDS, which, individually and collectively, represent a retro call for perpetuating the preferred American Way of War: killing people and breaking things as lethally and destructively as possible.

The document repeatedly invokes the terms “warfighting” and “warfighters” and accentuates “lethality” as the leading line of effort in our strategic posture. It contends that every domain of warfare – land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace – is now being contested (by someone), thereby implying that our deserved position of primacy in each must be restored. And it embraces the tired tautology that being prepared for war is the best, if not the only, way to prevent war, however illogical such widely embraced logic might be.

How do you respond to those who would argue that the NDS is nothing but a blunt-force call for a New Cold War that will only lead to an escalatory arms race, provoke others to undertake hostile actions inimical to U.S. interests, thereby render the United States strategically ineffective and, in the process, produce the opposite of what we profess to want: war, rather than peace?

US Air Force C-17 Globemaster in Syria
A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster takes off from an undisclosed location, June 23, 2018. The location was identified by @obretix as near Tell Tamr in northeastern Syria. Image: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Corey Hook

Question: There is ample evidence to suggest that the U.S. military isn’t even militarily effective today, much less strategically effective. We don’t win wars anymore and haven’t since World War II. It isn’t too much of a stretch, in fact, to suggest that the military we have is the very opposite of the military we need to deal effectively with the world around us: large (bloated even), where it should be streamlined; heavy, where it should be light; excessively destructive, where it should be constructive; indiscriminately lethal, where it should be at least discriminately lethal if not predominantly non-lethal; inflexibly general purpose, where it should be flexibly tailored; provocative, where it should be reassuring; selfishly unilateral, where it should be selflessly multilateral; inordinately expensive, where it should be affordable, especially vis-à-vis other strategic priorities.

How do you respond to those who say that the wars of today are inherently unwinnable in any event; that they become even more unwinnable the more we insist on imposing our preferred way of war on the situations we face, rather than adapting to what the situations demand; that, increasingly, we can expect to be confronted by asymmetric and hybrid forms of warfare designed to turn our self-determined strengths into unacknowledged weaknesses; and that, accordingly, the military, if it is truly to be strategically effective (and thereby able to secure and preserve lasting peace), should transform itself from a warfighting force into one designed principally for peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response?

US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan hosts German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen
US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan hosts German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., April 12, 2019. Image: Lisa Ferdinando/US Department of Defense

Question: One thing that should give us pause in judging whether a sound state of civil-military relations exists in this country today is the pronounced influence of the so-called Military-Industrial Complex. A defining feature of a truly healthy state of civil-military relations would be what we might call a properly subordinated Military-Industrial Complex– a relationship in which industry is subordinated to, rather than predominating over, the military, its roles, missions, priorities, and capabilities.

Students and practitioners of military and national security affairs are all too familiar with President Eisenhower’s famous 1961 farewell address, in which he warned of the unwarranted influence of the Military-Industrial Complex over our social, political, and economic lives.

Roughly 13% of the U.S. federal budget now goes to private-sector contractors, 63% of that to defense. Defense contracts represent 52% of overall defense spending; and the top 10 defense contractors alone collectively receive some $167 billion a year in defense revenues, an amount that exceeds the GDPs of more than 130 of the world’s countries.

The NDS, which emphatically calls for maintaining and expanding our military technological capability, is nothing if not a blank check for defense contractors, who can be expected to exploit this to the fullest and thereby become even more dominant than at present in determining our military and strategic posture. How does your extensive experience as a defense contractor equip you to recognize and deal with the dangers of an overweening, overly influential Military-Industrial Complex, and what can Congress expect of you in terms of your willingness to rein in or subordinate that complex?

Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan speaks to reporters during an off camera press gaggle at the Pentagon
Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan speaks to reporters during an off camera press gaggle at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2019. Image: Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense

Question: Yet another defining feature of a healthy state of civil-military relations is a critical free press able and willing to hold government accountable – especially a defense establishment whose congenital preference is for secrecy over transparency – and to thereby ensure an informed public that itself should be expected to be strategically aware and civically engaged.

All recent signs – including, not least, your May 8 internal Pentagon memo calling for restricting the release of information to Congress based on the information request’s “relationship to the legislative function” – suggest an increasingly pervasive, unhealthy cloaking of Pentagon activities in secrecy.

Why is this heightened preference for secrecy considered necessary, justifiable, and useful; and what should Congress expect of you in terms of your willingness to ensure informed public awareness of Pentagon activities that acknowledges the essential importance of public accountability and popular consent to our way of life?

Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan meets with the French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly
Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan meets with the French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly during a visit to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., March 18, 2019. Image: US Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense

These are just some of the questions that warrant the attention of lawmakers as the Shanahan confirmation hearing approaches. That these particular questions are so unlikely to actually be posed shouldn’t dissuade us from reflecting on them. Should they be asked, in this or other form, however illusory, obscure, or unsatisfying the resultant answer(s) may be, there is intrinsic value in the asking.

A passage from Elie Wiesel’s book Night, about his concentration camp experiences, reminds us why. Wiesel describes how, as a boy, he found a master to guide him in his studies of the Kabbalah (an exercise, to stretch the analogy, not unlike being schooled in the hermeneutics of Orwellian Newspeak that passes for political dialogue in Washington today). At one point the master says, with surpassing sagacity, that every question possesses a power that doesn’t lie in the answer.

In other words, the question – the quality of the question, that is – is what ultimately counts. For even if the answers say little in their obliquity and circumlocution, they may still tell us much.


Gregory D. FosterGregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., a West Point graduate, and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

Contact him at fosterg@ndu.edu.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.


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