WASHINGTON -- On his first working day as acting defense secretary, Pat Shanahan made clear that his focus is on China.
The former Boeing executive, who moved up from the No. 2 job after Pentagon chief James Mattis left Monday, gathered civilian leaders of the military services and other top civilian officials at the Defense Department on Wednesday before going to the White House for a Cabinet meeting.
A defense official said Shanahan told the Pentagon gathering that he is focused on the strategy as developed and put in place under Mattis. It emphasizes the importance of great power competition with Russia and China, after America's many years of fighting insurgent wars in the Middle East.
In that context, Shanahan said the Pentagon leaders should remember, "China, China, China," according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal defense meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.
President Donald Trump's administration has had a rocky relationship with China. Like President Barack Obama's administration, Trump's government is concerned by what it calls China's militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea and by its advances in certain high-tech weaponry.
Mattis, a retired Marine general, submitted his resignation on Dec. 20 after a series of policy disagreements with Trump, including the president's decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Mattis said he would stay until the end of February, but on Dec. 23 Trump announced that Shanahan would take over at the start of the year, speeding up Mattis' departure.
Trump on Wednesday questioned how well Mattis had served as Pentagon chief, and he pointed out that the retired Marine general had been removed early by the Obama administration from his last position, as chief of U.S. Central Command, over policy disagreements.
"What's he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good," Trump said. "As you know President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I."
Trump did not explain his complaint about Mattis' approach to the war. But Trump hinted that he had irreconcilable differences with Mattis on what Trump views as an unfair defense relationship with allies such as NATO. Trump suggested that Shanahan agrees with him on this.
"We have some great allies, but a lot of our allies were taking advantage of our taxpayers and our country," Trump said. "We can't let that happen, and Pat Shanahan agrees with that and he's agreed with that for a long time. And that was very important to me."
As acting secretary, Shanahan has all the authorities of a permanent secretary. It's unclear whether Trump will nominate Shanahan as Mattis' successor or will choose someone else. Shanahan had been the deputy secretary since July 2017. He spent his entire career with the Boeing Co. and has no prior government experience.
Trump said in a visit to Iraq last month that "everybody and his uncle" and "everybody and his aunt" has interest in becoming defense secretary, but added that Shanahan "could be there for a long time." The president did not say whether he meant in an acting capacity, or if he would nominate Shanahan for the permanent post.
Shanahan said Wednesday in a statement that he has tapped David Norquist, an undersecretary of defense who serves as comptroller, to perform the duties of the deputy defense secretary while Shanahan moves up from that position to serve as acting defense secretary. Norquist has served since June 2017 as the Defense Department's chief financial officer, and has "insight into virtually every tenet of this department," Shanahan said.
Shanahan, a native of Washington state, had worked for Boeing since 1986. His views on strategic issues such as U.S. alliances and the wars in Afghanistan and Syria are largely unknown to the public. During his Senate confirmation hearing in June 2017, Shanahan drew the ire of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for equivocating on whether he favored providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine in response to Russian military intervention.
Shanahan holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and two advanced degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It is rare for the Pentagon to be run by an acting secretary. The last was William H. Taft, who served in that capacity for about 60 days in 1989 after President George H.W. Bush's initial 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.
The transition comes as the Pentagon grapples with Trump's desire to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and cut down the 14,000 that are in Afghanistan. Trump issued withdrawal orders for Syria on Dec. 19, and also directed the Pentagon to draw up plans to reduce the number of service members in Afghanistan by roughly half, U.S. officials have said.
Trump initially wanted all of the U.S. troops out of Syria within 30 days, triggering Mattis' resignation and concerns from Republicans and Democrats that the decision would create new chaos in the region. The president, in a video posted on his Twitter account Dec. 19, said that U.S. troops were "all coming back" from Syria, "and they're coming back now."
The president has since softened on that approach, saying in a tweet Monday that U.S. officials are "slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families," while service members who remain deployed in Syria continue to fight remnants of the Islamic State.
Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to completely depart from Syria, according to three U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy discussions. That development was first first reported by The New York Times.
But U.S. officials suggested Wednesday that the withdrawal plan remains unclear. While Trump agreed to a 120-day timeline, military officials have cautioned that an additional month or two would allow for a smoother transition and hope to persuade the president to allow for a longer delay, the officials said.
Officials at the State Department, meanwhile, have struggled to explain the U.S. strategy in Syria to key foreign partners invested in the conflict, given the possibility that Trump's advisers might persuade him to back off his initial withdrawal plan.
Trump has expressed exasperation at the criticism he has received for his plans to withdraw from the conflicts, which he says are costly and unpopular.
"I am the only person in America who could say that, 'I'm bringing our great troops back home, with victory,' and get BAD press," Trump tweeted Monday.
Pentagon officials, who rarely discuss troop movements before they occur, have declined to say how long a withdrawal will take.
"We are focused on a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces, taking all measures possible to ensure our troops' safety as they continue in their mission of an enduring defeat of ISIS," said Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman. "Out of concern for operational security, we are not going to discuss operational details."
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns of The Associated Press; and by Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and John Hudson of The Washington Post.
Then-Secretary of State James Mattis (left) looks out over Kabul from a helicopter as he arrives in April 2017 for a stop with U.S. military officials. President Donald Trump on Wednesday questioned Mattis’ effectiveness as Pentagon chief and noted that Mattis had been removed as chief of U.S. Central Command by former President Barack Obama. “What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Trump said. “As you know President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”
A Section on 01/03/2019
Print Headline: Defense chief keys on China; Mattis fired over poor job, Trump says of Pentagon shift