What Patrick Shanahan’s nomination for secretary of defense would mean for U.S. foreign policy

The national security advisor can roll over Shanahan, who is inexperienced and doesn't even seem to be "part of the foreign policy conversation."

Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on his way to a meeting at the Pentagon on May 9, 2019, in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.
Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on his way to a meeting at the Pentagon on May 9, 2019, in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Nearly five months after appointing a former Boeing executive as interim Secretary of Defense, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday announced the president’s intention to nominate Patrick Shanahan permanently to the position.

In the tweet announcing the decision, Sanders said President Donald Trump’s decision was based on Shanahan’s leadership qualities and his “outstanding service to the Country”:

If Shanahan is actually nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, he will be among the very few to hold the post while lacking military, foreign policy, government, and national security experience. Experts and veterans worry that this lack of experience means he will leave key policy discussions to National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom are considered to be among the more hawkish figures in the administration.


“His resume, while impressive from a defense industry standard, doesn’t really address the needs of being a defense secretary,” said Leo Cruz, an Navy veteran and associate director of communications and campaigns at National Security Action, a nonprofit organization focusing on U.S. global leadership. Cruz says that he’s not convinced that Shanahan will bring the kind of oversight required to run the largest bureaucracy in the world.

Shanahan has been occupying the interim role during an incredibly challenging time for the Pentagon. The United States is at war in seven countries, and involved in some kind of military engagement (training, combat, etc.) in dozens more. The Trump administration is trying to find its way out of some conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria) while being in danger of sliding into others (Venezuela and Iran).

Meanwhile, Shanahan isn’t saying much about his position on these issues.

“This past week, when the national security adviser is going around town, drumming up support for military action in both Iran and Venezuela, you haven’t really heard much from Secretary Shanahan… He has not been the voice of caution in the tradition of a secretary of defense,” said Cruz.

Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chair of, a political action committee  nonprofit focusing in defense policy, says Shanahan is “a lightweight” who lacks “the background, or the expertise, or the experience, per se, or the character to stand up to Donald Trump.”


Soltz did however, offer that critics who hold that Shanahan doesn’t respect the military because he himself hasn’t served are being “unfair.” Many in Shanahan’s generation, Soltz notes, who haven’t experienced a military draft, would be starting from the same position.

Nevertheless, Shanahan will have a large learning curve to overcome, and will have to grow into an understanding of the sacrifices that troops make.

“He’s going to have to spend a lot of time with troops at the border, he’s going to have to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the ramification of a foreign policy that’s not restrained,” Soltz said.

Meanwhile, other figures in the Trump administration will be leading the foreign policy decisions.

“The winner of the Shanahan nomination is [John] Bolton,” said Soltz. “And that takes the president to a far, far different place from the guy who ran for president saying he was gonna essentially get to the left of Hillary Clinton [who voted for the Iraq War] on foreign policy, which essentially won him white, middle-class voters,” he added.

The president’s foreign policy, he added, is “being destroyed by neocons.”

Shanahan would be replacing James Mattis, who resigned in December after Trump abruptly announced that he would be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. That troop pullout was postponed until April, but has not yet materialized.


Mattis’s resignation triggered concerns among Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), for example, tweeted at the time, that with Mattis gone, “we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation.”

“With Mattis… he had the ability and the knowledge on how to slow-roll this president, both on [North] Korea, and things like the military parade, sending troops to the border. He knew how to balance out the president’s impulsive behavior,” said Soltz, “we have lost that check and balance.”

Shanahan does not seem to be that check against the president. As interim defense secretary, he faced angry lawmakers at the Munich security conference in February, and he couldn’t provide solid answers as to what the troop withdrawal from Syria might look like, only saying that it was being done as per the president’s demands of “going to zero by April 30.”

He has also reprogrammed $1 billion in department funds to help build roughly 60 miles of the president’s border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, while having little to say about it himself. As Cruz points out, Shanahan tends to let others “carry the water” for him.

The move means that lawmakers might take away the Pentagon’s ability to reprogram or redirect funds in the future. Shanahan showed loyalty to a president that demands it, though seldom reciprocates.

Shanahan certainly wouldn’t be the only person to head the department without the necessary experience.

For instance, Charles Erwin Wilson, head of General Motors, took the post in 1953. Under pressure from the Senate, however, Wilson was forced to sell his stock. By contrast. Shanahan, per his disclosure form when he assumed the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense in July 2017, still owns plenty of Boeing stock.

Shanahan has been accused of promoting Boeing’s products and favoring the defense giant for government contracts and purchases. An investigation, launched in March by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, cleared Shanahan in April. It found that inspectors could not substantiate the allegations against Shanahan, who they found had acted in full compliance with his “ethics agreements and ethical obligations regarding Boeing.”

Despite being cleared, Cruz said, that “it’s still a bad look” to “let the fox into the henhouse.”