The precarious perch of a potential Pentagon chief

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2019, photo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan to consult with Army Gen. Scott Miller, right, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, and senior Afghan government leaders. Shanahan, the former Boeing executive, was in a familiar place, aboard an airplane, when he got word of a bolt-from-the-blue political shot across his bow. A key senator seemed to have buried Shanahan’s chances of being nominated as the next secretary of defense. The crisis passed, but it highlighted the precarious position Shanahan occupies as he waits for President Donald Trump to decide who he will successor to Jim Mattis as leader of the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
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Patrick Shanahan, the former Boeing executive, was in a familiar place — aboard an airplane — when he got word of a bolt-from-the-blue political shot across his bow, an apparent blow to his chances of being nominated as the next secretary of defense.

Sen. James Inhofe, the White House-friendly Republican chairman of the committee that would pass judgment on the nomination, was being quoted in news reports as saying he didn’t think Shanahan would get the nod, and that Shanahan lacked humility.

Within hours, however, the crisis passed as Inhofe backtracked, insisting he had not meant to say he had a problem with Shanahan. “I like the guy. I would support him” if nominated, Inhofe told The Associated Press.

The episode, which played out while Shanahan was flying from Baghdad to Brussels on his first trip abroad as the acting secretary of defense, highlights the precarious position he occupies while waiting for President Donald Trump to decide who he will nominate as successor to Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who quit in December after nearly two years of leading the Pentagon.

With no other candidate emerging as the clear front-runner, expectations inside the Pentagon are that Shanahan will soon be nominated and that he likely would win Senate confirmation. He would be the first career defense industry executive to serve as defense secretary.

In the two months he has led the Pentagon, Shanahan has avoided public missteps while handling such politically sensitive issues as sending military reinforcements to the U.S.-Mexico border. Shanahan has a less defined track record on policy issues than Mattis, perhaps giving him a more friction-free start with Trump.

Shanahan, 56, grew up in Seattle. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and two advanced degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Boeing in 1986, rose through its ranks and is credited with rescuing a troubled Dreamliner 787 program. He also led the company’s missile defense and military helicopter programs.

Some have questioned whether Shanahan’s background amounts to an inherent conflict of interest for a defense secretary presiding over a multi-billion-dollar procurement budget. But Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, argues that experience in defense industry issues could work to Shanahan’s benefit.

“We need a strong defense industrial base, and so anybody who is reflexively against his association with industry needs to rethink how you build a strong military in a modern society like ours,” O’Hanlon said in an interview.

“In the end, I don’t expect that to be a huge sticking point” to Senate confirmation, should Shanahan get the nomination, O’Hanlon added.

Although a few members of the Senate have rhetorically roughed up Shanahan, he has not generated broad opposition during two months of auditioning for the nomination. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, has butted heads with Shanahan over the administration’s Syria policy, but that confrontation quickly faded after the White House partially reversed course by agreeing to keep a few hundred troops in Syria rather than withdrawing all 2,000.

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, has publicly argued for Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, to be defense secretary. Ernst told the AP that if Shanahan gets the nomination she would revisit his background “just to make sure there’s no conflict of interest,” calling herself undecided.

Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, called Shanahan “very forthright” but would not say directly whether she thinks he should get the job.

Shanahan was the deputy secretary of defense during Mattis’ two-year tenure. No one thought of him then as a potential No. 1; he had never previously served in government and carried little political sway in Washington or in foreign capitals. Aides say that during his 17 months as deputy, Shanahan was deeply engaged in the full range of policy issues and briefed on military operations. He shares Mattis’s conviction that the Pentagon needs to shift its focus from fighting insurgent wars to preparing for and deterring armed conflict with big powers like China.

“China, China, China,” was his message to senior department officials the day he took over for Mattis, aides said.

Trump installed Shanahan as the acting secretary on Jan. 1 and has since spoken admiringly of him. This is only the third time in history that the Pentagon has been led by an acting chief. The last was William H. Taft, who served for two months in 1989 after President George H.W. Bush’s first choice to be defense secretary, John Tower, became mired in controversy and ultimately failed to be confirmed by the Senate. Dick Cheney, the future vice president under President George W. Bush, then was nominated and confirmed.

Presidents typically take pains to ensure the Pentagon is being run by a Senate-confirmed official, given the grave responsibilities that include sending young Americans into battle, ensuring the military is ready for extreme emergencies like nuclear war and managing overseas alliances that are central to U.S. security.

Trump seemed attracted to Shanahan partially for his work on one of the president’s pet projects — creating a Space Force. He also has publicly lauded Shanahan’s former employer, Boeing, builder of many of the military’s most prominent aircraft, including the Apache and Chinook helicopters, the C-17 cargo plane and the B-52 bomber, as well as the iconic presidential aircraft, Air Force One.

Trump seemed to tire of Mattis’ reputation as the administration’s moderating influence on national security issues. But when he quit, there was no sudden rush of candidates to fill his shoes.

Shanahan “may be not so bad an option,” O’Hanlon said.

“You get a person who’s got some of the Mattis world view now inculcated inside of him but without that kind of star power,” he added. “That may actually be what Trump wants. So, whether it’s my own recommendation or my own prediction, I see no reason not to lean in Shanahan’s favor.”q