By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON — Just over a year ago, Washington, DC, could not wait to get Mark Esper into the E Ring office of the Defense Secretary, overlooking the Potomac River and the city’s glorious monuments.
The Pentagon had been adrift without leadership for more than seven months and a series of acting defense secretaries left the folks who hang photos in the hallways dizzy and Congress fretting.
Esper, who was Army secretary, received as expeditious a hearing and confirmation as possible to underscore the yearning for stability and structure. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and other luminaries came to the Pentagon for a full-fledged swearing-in ceremony.
Other than Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who questioned Esper’s background as a lobbyist for Raytheon and as a Washington insider — there were few naysayers.
A year later, Esper’s first anniversary at the Pentagon helm was marked with, among other things, the arrival of two 20-something emissaries from the White House prowling about the Pentagon, querying officials to determine their loyalty to President Trump. Esper’s goodwill on Capitol Hill had evaporated; many were suggesting he was dwarfed in the shadow of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his West Point classmate.
And he was again slammed by Warren.
What is left of conventional thinking in the nation’s capital is singing a September Song that believes Esper will be gone from his post after the November election — either by his choice or that of the White House.
That leaves at least one unanswered, increasingly looming question among those who foresee mayhem coming: what will Esper do if turmoil strikes the streets, the election becomes a battle, and the country is moving perilously toward the brink?
It has left Esper facing a likely Gordian knot as part of the Faustian bargain he made by becoming Defense Secretary.
“Ideally, you want someone there who is going to be a leader,” Daniel Davis, a retired Army colonel now with Defense Priorities, said. “I would have like to have seen more of a leadership role. But he never seemed interested in stepping out of Pompeo’s shadow. He seems comfortable in following.”
The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, has bellowed that the military will not get involved in any election calamity. He also said that the military would only follow lawful orders — deftly sidestepping the fact that any order issued by the president is considered lawful under military code.
That would leave it up to Esper if he felt taking a stand or action was imperative. Unlike Milley who plans to remain in his job, an on-the-way-out-the-door Esper should have the luxury to do what he thinks is best.
The most generous assessment of Esper comes from those feeling that he calmed the Pentagon ship, even if he did not get it sailing forward robustly.
“I think Esper has done pretty well in a very tough situation,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel who once worked in the Pentagon and now is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said.
“He has an erratic boss, a hyper-partisan political environment, and a global pandemic that has thoroughly disrupted the economy and society,” he said. “Nevertheless, he has been able to keep the department well-resourced and operating. Despite the pandemic, DOD has maintained US global commitments.”
Others are more critical, suggesting that Esper became a caretaker plugged in by Trump to be subservient to the White House directed tone for the Pentagon.
“They (Senate and House members) thought he was more ready to go,” Davis said. “We need more out of a secretary of defense.”
Esper actually did step out, in June, when the president was agitating to send armed active military forces into U.S. streets to confront demonstrators in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Trump was on course to invoke the Insurrection Act, which clears the way for active troops to be used on U.S. soil against U.S. citizens. Esper and Milley opposed the decision and worked to keep Trump from taking that step.
Critically, Esper publicly stated he opposed invoking the act — doing so without informing the White House in advance of his press conference remarks. Some say it was Esper trying to recoup from remarks he made referring to U.S. streets as “battlespace” that forces have to “dominate” that drew a fusillade of criticism.
Public opposition to White House doctrine is heresy akin to political suicide within the Trump administration. According to reports, Trump’s tepid view of Esper morphed into rage.
It was, as some have mused, a moment for Esper akin to that of Francis Macomber, the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
In that 1936 story, Macomber finds his courage and finally stands up to the wild animals on a safari hunt and his cheating wife, only to be slain later in what is called an accident.
Since that June Macomber moment, Esper has been pummeled by the Trump administration, which has taken an increasingly hands-on role in placing personnel into — and blocking highly qualified females from — top Pentagon positions.
Esper also suffers from what those before him realized: the White House announces military decisions — such as opposing changing the names of bases now honoring Confederate officers or troop withdrawal from Syria — with no advance word to the Pentagon leaders.
Each time Esper seems to try to assert himself, he gets woodshedded by the White House.
Late summer, in an interview with NPR, Esper firmly declared the existing Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) does not give Trump the authority to strike targets in Iran in response to threats against U.S. forces. Seemingly realizing his verbal transgression, Esper recalibrated and said if the AUMF would not authorize it, Article II of the Constitution would.
However, the damage was done. When it was time to defend Trump’s unilateral decision to cut U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to around 4,000 before the November election, Esper was consigned to a little-watched Saturday evening Fox talk show with Judge Jeanine Pirro.
Esper was hailed when he took office as one to impose conservative real think and help cut the defense budget. Yet almost by cautious default, he let his image be constructed by a tangle of intangibles and taciturnity.
For example, while former defense secretaries from Donald Rumsfeld to James Mattis were known for strong signature statements, Esper is best noted by many for declaring “I don’t know” and “I have not read that” on innumerable occasions to members of Congress and the press.
Military analysts see some similarities between defense secretaries brought in to work for a mercurial president, such as President Johnson switching defense secretaries to find one to accept his version of the Vietnam war.
“Warfighting demands clarity and words have meaning,” Earl Tilford, military history and retired Air Force intelligence officer, said. “That’s why soldiers use short orders and sometimes colorful language while diplomats like language that can be taken several ways. Trump is more of a ‘Get ‘er done’ kind of guy.”
Esper has ceased press briefings and taken steps to avoid press questions, lest he be further ensnarled in the Trump tantrum thicket. He has upped his travel schedule to far-flung locates, becoming the first defense secretary to visit Palau — which resulted in a new basing deal for the Pentagon — and stopping at long-neglected locations such as Tunisia and Malta to avoid the swirling chatter about his future. One week before the election he was on the other side of the globe, in India.
In retrospect, it did not take Trump long to telegraph his feelings about Esper. It was just early October 2019 when Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria. In that tweet he referred to the defense secretary as “Mark Esperanto, Secretary of Defense.”
Almost a year later, on August 15, when Trump was asked if he has confidence in Esper’s leadership, he responded, “Did you call him Yesper? Some people call him Yesper.” Trump then said, “I get along with him.” About those rumors he considered firing Esper, Trump said, “I consider firing everybody.”
That prompted a rare statement from the Pentagon, stressing that Esper swore an oath as a West Point cadet 38 years ago and “continues that same commitment to duty, honor, and country today,” but recognizes he serves “at the pleasure of the president.”
So that also put Esper on record as recalling the oath he took at West Point. Those wondering how will act in a potential crisis hope he also remembers the slogan of his class of 1986 — “Courage Never Quits.” How he heeds that slogan may determine if he leaves, and is remembered, as Yesper or Francis Macomber.