Washington Military Leadership Vacuum Grows

Working for the United States Department of Defense at The Pentagon is usually the highlight of both military and civilian professionals, especially when they reach the upper echelons of the organization. However, a steady stream of retirements, including some surprise departures, have left the department – and by extension, US President Donald Trump – with a gaping hole once occupied by adept military expertise.

In April 2019, the tide picked up in earnest beginning with five out of seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff being replaced, according to The Wall Street Journal. Regional commanders in charge of command posts abroad were not immune to the turnover either, which by design to some extent. 

“The scheduled and periodic turnover of senior leaders throughout the US military at all echelons is a common occurrence and one for which we are well-prepared as an institution,”  said Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, spokesman for the Joint Staff. 

While that is true to some degree, the exodus has continued during what has arguably the most turbulent period of US foreign relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. What began in April continued throughout the end of December, with the defense department closing 2019 with five resignations over a two-week span. 

The December resignations included: Tina Kaidanow, senior advisor for international cooperation; Steven Walker director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; Jimmy Steward, undersecretary of defence for personnel and readiness; Kari Bingen, principal deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence; and Randall Schriver, assistant defence secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs. 

Forced Out 

While resignations allowed some officials to leave their posts with dignity, others were not afforded the same opportunity. In the case of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Defence Secretary Mark Esper fired him in a highly publicised event. The move came as a result of controversy surrounding Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher.

Spencer’s handling of the affair, notably circumventing the chain of command and trying to deal directly with the Trump administration to preserve Gallagher’s SEAL rank, ultimately contributed to Gallagher retaining his status and becoming a conservative icon.

Spencer served four years as captain in the Navy.

In July, Adm. William Moran announced he would retire and suddenly declined the top naval post of Chief of Naval Operations. The position also would have placed the four-star officer to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

While Moran was not forced out in a technical sense, it was undoubtedly in the works after he was discovered to be relying on a public affairs advisor who had been reprimanded for partying with junior officers. The questionable judgement was viewed as unbecoming and unprofessional by Spencer, who was still in his position at the time, and he indicated that he would have asked for Moran’s resignation had he not willingly provided it.

Battle-Hardened Servicemen Relinquished Coveted Top Posts

Higher up the chain, Ryan Zinke resigned as Secretary of the Interior amid allegations surrounding a development project in his home town of Whitefish, Montana. Zinke had previously served in the Navy as Commander in the famous SEAL Team Six. Notably, he was the first SEAL to ever serve on a presidential cabinet. 

Turning to generals, Trump replaced Gen. Jim Mattis replaced with Lt. Col. Mark Esper from the Army for the position of Secretary of Defence. While Esper did accumulate 20 years of military service, it was less than half of Mattis’ 44 years, from 1969 to 2013. Mattis did not leave on good terms after turning in his resignation, alluding to differences of strategy. Trump decided to expedite his departure, essentially firing him before his planned resignation date.  

Like Mattis, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster had decades of experience before serving as Trump’s national security advisor. Also like Mattis, McMaster was initially viewed as a possible counter to Trump’s impulsive decision-making. When it became clear the two had different opinions on foreign policy, Trump chose to replace him with John Bolton, who was also subsequently either fired or dismissed, depending on whose account you believe. 

Gen. John Kelly had the most experience of them all after serving in the Marine Corps. Trump picked him to fill the post of Secretary of Homeland Security before promoting him to White House Chief of Staff. The relationship between Trump and Kelly deteriorated so much that it was reported the two were no longer on speaking terms shortly before Kelly left his position. 

Kelly had been most-aligned with Trump, mostly in his support of stricter immigration controls. Kelly’s successor, Mick Mulvaney, went on to tell the press that quid pro quo, as in the case of Ukraine, happens “all the time” and that the media should “get over it.”

Finally, Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, had 2 years of military experience from 1966 to 1968. While his service record was brief, he went on to graduate from law school before serving as representative, ambassador to German, and two stints as senator before joining the Trump cabinet. 

Most critically, Coats disagreed with Trump on foreign policy hotspots including North Korea, Iran, and Russia. He was dismissed shortly after Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was made public, signalling that Trump blamed Coats for it.

Pompeo and Esper Fill the Void

The high-profile departures of military veterans begs the question of “Who is left?” After Trump decided to assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, US Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, said the president had received “bad advice” when making the decision. A brain-drain in both the Pentagon and White House may have simply left no one to give good advice. 

Two cabinet members remain who possess military expertise and the rarer quality of having Trump’s ear: Esper and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Coincidentally, both men have professional experience working the aircraft industry, Esper as executive vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association and Pompeo at several manufacturers he purchased with some military friends. 

Pompeo, on the other hand, remains composed while under pressure and demonstrates a wealth of emotional intelligence. He has shown that his political views mostly align with Trump and that he is capable of keeping the president from making rash decisions. Pompeo’s professional qualifications are impressive; he is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, West Point and Harvard graduate, former congressman, and entrepreneur. 

In a way, he is like an alternate reality version of Trump, where the future president succeeded at his military boarding school and chose not to dodge the military draft. In that world, Trump may have returned from the war a different man; a man much like Pompeo.