Opinion

KEELEY: Michael Shanahan — A Defense Secretary Hiding In Plain Sight?

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Gregory Keeley National security analyst

In the wake of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation, I penned a column examining potential replacements. A number of candidates on that list have been ruled out; Gen. David Petraeus, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Gen. Jack Keane are among them. However, one name was missing from the original list: Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Michael Shanahan.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Shanahan spent 30 years with defense contractor Boeing. He served as assistant secretary of Defense, the Pentagon’s number two — or in business parlance, the chief operating officer of the U.S. government’s largest and most complex agency, charged with 1.4 million active duty members of the military, 700,000 civilians, and 1.1 million Guard and Reserve troops.

The predictable, reflex disparagement of Shanahan is that he lacks military, government and foreign policy experience. What the chattering classes in D.C. fail to acknowledge is the acting secretary worked cheek to jowl with Mattis. He was a change agent, driving policy and briefing the White House. According to reports, Shanahan participated alongside Mattis in virtually every conference, discussion and consultation of import.

According to the DOD, Shanahan, as deputy secretary, handled internal reform, budget issues and the Space Force. He was intimately involved with the development of the National Defense Strategy and the administration’s South Asia strategy.

The naysayers also fail to recognize Shanahan’s business and engineering chops. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, a master’s in mechanical engineering from MIT and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is no slouch.

Shanahan spent 30 years at Boeing. He began his career as an engineer, working through the ranks to the crucial role of senior vice president of supply chain and operations. Talking heads opined that Shanahan’s three decades at the aerospace giant would give Boeing an unfair benefit. Legally it cannot. SECDEF does not have a role in acquisition decisions. By regulation, source selection is left to the military services. Joint programs are managed by the defense acquisition executive, the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment. Source selection committees conduct their assessments in secret. The secretary has no sign off authority.

I would argue that Shanahan’s industry reputation and experience will serve as a conduit to, and as a tool with defense contractors. He will be able to comprehend their issues and address them from a position of earned authority.

Interestingly, the same foreign policy experience criticisms were not leveled at Obama’s last SECDEF, Ashton Carter. In fact, his background as a professor and physicist was lauded by the president the media.

Shanahan reportedly enjoys a positive relationship with both President Trump and Vice President Pence. Trump sees Shanahan as an astute defense industry deal-maker. “He’s a good buyer,” Trump said. I wanted somebody that could buy, because I’m giving a lot of money and I don’t want it to be wasted.”

Shanahan has been instrumental in the development of the new National Defense Strategy. He is a champion of the Pentagon’s overdue transition from counterinsurgency to an emphasis on countering great-power competition, namely China. To quote Shanahan in Stars and Stripes, “China, China, China.” It is time for the U.S. to pivot from the feckless, reckless Asia posture of the previous administration and robustly challenge China’s expansionist, belligerent efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

Another benefit of a Shanahan SECDEF is the prospect of cooler and more defined budget negotiations with Congress. This was not a task his predecessor was adept at or relished. I contend that President Trump nominate a Secretary able to negotiate in the halls of Congress. The secretary must spend time building relationships with, and forming cogent arguments for lawmakers. The next two years will see rough budget battles and prickly deliberations over policy issues from Syria and North Korea to improving cyber security capabilities and acquisition and contract management. Shanahan brings this competency to bear.

Make no mistake, running the Department of Defense with its $1.3 trillion budget is an enormously challenging role, perhaps one of the most difficult in Washington. President Trump can now nominate a SECDEF more closely affiliated with his administration’s agenda. A leader who understands change management, can call out military contractors, and is able to navigate Congress. Perhaps the commander in chief need look no further than the current occupant of the big office with the Potomac River view.

Greg Keeley (@DreadnaughtUSA) is managing partner of Dreadnaught and retired lieutenant commander who served in both the U.S. and Australian Navies. LCDR Keeley also served as a NATO & ISAF spokesman, and as senior adviser to the vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee and chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Congress.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.