In his first interview since being confirmed last month, Esper laid out his vision for restoring stability to the Pentagon after a period of leadership upheaval while also ensuring that the military can make good on its long-delayed goal of regaining its advantage over Beijing.
Esper, 55, who was a lobbyist for weapons maker Raytheon when Trump picked him to be Army secretary in 2017, said he would establish new metrics and processes for keeping staff focused on China-related goals while tapping his relationships with key Trump administration figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Esper shared a stage with his U.S. Military Academy classmate this week as he touched down for a joint meeting of the Defense and State departments in Australia during his inaugural tour of Asia as Pentagon chief.
Esper promised to shield the department from politicization through personal example. “Part of my role is to exhibit the right behavior,” he said. “This is something I messaged to the leadership a week ago: We are an apolitical organization.”
So far Esper’s plans on China closely track the blueprint laid out in a major 2018 defense strategy for matching strength with the advanced militaries of Moscow and Beijing that was formulated by Trump’s first defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis. “We have a very good national defense strategy, and now the challenge is implementing it,” he said from his office overlooking the Potomac.
Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official who directs the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Esper had demonstrated adept management in his previous job by bringing a skeptical eye to his evaluation of Army programs. Now, he will be judged by whether he delivers on the strategy.
“His job is a lot tougher than Mattis’s was in the first two years,” Karlin said. “He’s gotten a generous budget from the Congress and . . . now has to turn this vision on paper into reality.”
Esper, named acting defense secretary in June after the previous acting secretary, Patrick Shanahan, stepped aside suddenly for personal reasons, takes control of the Pentagon at a moment defined in part by its struggle to anticipate and understand the wishes of Trump.
The administration’s steps to restrict interagency deliberations have compounded the impact of the president’s unpredictable decision-making style. More significantly, military officials have also had difficulty reconciling Trump’s demands with what have traditionally been viewed as core U.S. defense interests.
Nowhere has that conundrum been clearer than in regard to long-standing defense allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Disagreement over how to treat battlefield partners in Syria led to Mattis’s resignation in December. Military leaders have also been dismayed by what they fear could be the abrupt withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Syria and by steps that critics say have eroded the military’s nonpartisan standing, including the use of military funds for Trump’s border wall and the placement of military vehicles in Washington during the president’s July 4 celebration.
It remains to be seen whether Esper can publicly reinforce traditional Pentagon positions, such as reassuring anxious allies and making a case for maintaining counterterrorism missions overseas, while advancing the president’s priorities. Well-versed in policy matters and the arcane ways of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy, Esper sought to minimize those differences.
“DOD does have a strong voice out there, and we will exercise it,” he said. “But, again, I’m going to balance those two things as well because, at the end of the day, we’re advancing America’s interests.”
Unlike Mattis and Shanahan, Esper served in partisan positions before joining the Trump administration, including serving as aide to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and national security czar to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Asked about the southern border, where Trump has deployed thousands of troops and ordered the Pentagon to redirect military funds to pay for his wall, Esper characterized the situation as a “national security issue,” echoing White House depictions. But he also signaled a desire to put the politically charged matter in the past. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could go ahead with using military money for the wall while the matter is litigated.
Shanahan “went through all that and made the arguments,” Esper said. “So no need to rehash that. We are where we are, and we will leverage and utilize those funds as need be.”
Hagel, who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said his former aide’s track record had prepared him well for his new role. “You’re politically maneuvering all the time, with the national security adviser, with the president himself, with your own internal emperors and chiefs, with Congress and the press,” he said.
He said Esper was likely to be tested by Trump’s apparent dislike of pushback from subordinates and his proclivity for bypassing even his most senior advisers. “All you can do is make your best case, as effectively as you can,” Hagel said. “You’ve got to stay true to yourself.”
As secretary, Esper will have to juggle the Pentagon’s China agenda with the specter of conflict with Iran, all while addressing the fallout from Trump’s rocky relationship with allies needed on both issues.
Esper got a taste of those competing demands this week during visits to Asian capitals. Speaking after the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a Cold War-era arms control pact with Russia, Esper said the Pentagon was planning to develop new intermediate-range conventional missiles and place some of them in the Pacific, a move that would counteract Beijing’s significant arsenal. The proposal has already brought a defiant Chinese response.
The Pentagon chief acknowledged that there is a “trade-off between near-term and far-term” as officers such as Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, request additional forces to counter Iran while Pentagon leaders attempt to double down on the Pacific.
“We’re in a compete phase right now with China,” Esper said, describing a conversation he had Friday in which he asked the chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, what other resources he needs. “So, that’s the tension right there, and it’s not just between those two, but it’s between all the combatant commanders, and the various demands we’re placing on the system.”
Esper also touted an administration victory during the tour after Britain announced it would join a U.S. initiative to surveil Iranian naval activity in shipping corridors of the Middle East. Germany and France, who have voiced criticism of Trump’s withdrawal from the joint nuclear deal with Iran, have shown no interest in that surveillance plan.
During his Australia stop on Sunday, Esper made the case for allied help. En route to Tokyo on Tuesday, he pledged to make similar pitches in South Korea and Japan.
Asked how he will balance his entire portfolio, Esper took a broad review in a conversation with reporters this weekend.
“The world is always busy and complicated,” he said. “You can look at any point in history. This is just the nature of things. This is the world that we live in.”
Lamothe reported from Tokyo.