(May 29, 2019 / JNS) Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was nominated earlier this month to the position permanently as tensions between the United States and Iran have increased, with the former deploying two warships and bombers to the Persian Gulf in response to threats from the latter—moves that, according to him, put the Iranian threat “on hold.”
Shanahan, 56, previously served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense under James Mattis, who resigned as Defense Secretary in December in protest over U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that most American troops withdraw from Syria, a decision that has since changed.
No confirmation hearing has been set by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. While it appears that Shanahan barely has the votes to be confirmed along partisan lines, his chances are far from certain as his performances in testifying in front of Congress has been a mixed record.
Before serving as deputy secretary, he worked for 30 years at Boeing, where he was an executive.
Shanahan has been acting defense secretary since Jan. 1.
“The main thing about him is that he’s a manager whose background and talents are most relevant to budgeting and procurement,” Richard Betts, a former longtime national security staffer in the U.S. government and an adjunct senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told JNS. “He is not known for having particular views on foreign-policy issues.”
Shanahan also has no military experience.
America’s ‘continued commitment’ to Israeli security
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that Shanahan has, in his current role, been a “non-factor” and “Israel-neutral,” though the Pentagon has historically been friendly towards Israel.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him publicly come out and talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship in any significant way,” he said.
As acting secretary, in March Shanahan ordered the latest U.S. THAAD missile-defense system to be stationed in Israel.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said that the move exemplified America’s “continued commitment” to Israeli security.
“The U.S.-Israel relationship, when it comes to military-to-military relations, is professional—is stable from one administration to another. It really does not change with changes in leadership. It is consistent,” said Schanzer. “It was good [under former U.S. President Barack] Obama. And it’s been good during Trump.”
One of the biggest challenges Shanahan will likely continue to face is the shift in the Trump administration’s focus from non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, to threats from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
“I’m not sure if it’s happening in the way many describe it,” said Schanzer. “But it’s certainly a big-picture issue that is being debated in defense circles in Washington.”
The New York Times has reported that the Trump administration has reviewed a military option that includes sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Mideast if Iran were to attack U.S. forces or increase its work on nuclear weapons. Trump has denied the report.
Presenting this option implies that Shanahan “is fully onboard with the president’s determination to challenge Iranian regional conduct, as well as Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the flawed nuclear deal concluded by the Obama administration with Iran,” former Israeli Defense Forces Sgt. Benjamin Anthony told JNS.
Top Pentagon officials met last week with Trump administration members at the White House, where they agreed to “initially send up to 3,000 additional troops, with discussions under way for more to support submarines, planes, drones and anti-missile batteries,” with the troop level “expected to be the first of what may be a larger deployment,” officials told the Wall Street Journal.
Eldad Shavit, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), concurred with Schanzer and told JNS, “I do not see for the time being that we should expect that, like his predecessors, his attitude towards Israel will be characterized by appreciation and friendship and concern for its security needs against the backdrop of the threats facing Israel. It is likely that he will also appreciate Israel’s contribution to advancing American interests.”
However, he said, “Shanahan’s biggest challenge is whether he will be able to form an independent position with which he will be able to contend with the powerful forces,” such as U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, “who now lead American policy.”
Shavit said “this is very important in all the issues, and especially in the desired policy issues [regarding] Iran. In the past, the Pentagon was a balancing force and sometimes a moderating force vis-à-vis the aspirations of other decision-makers.”