It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Patrick Shanahan. The acting U.S. secretary of defense said Tuesday he is leaving government because of “a painful and deeply personal family situation” from a decade ago that he had hoped to keep private. Now the details have become public, and the FBI’s lingering questions are the ostensible reason that Shanahan has withdrawn from consideration to replace James Mattis, who resigned as the Pentagon’s chief in December.
At the same time, as difficult as it is for Shanahan, the change is probably for the best — for him, his family and the country.
Shanahan was out of his depth as the civilian leader of the world’s largest military. He was not an effective advocate inside the executive branch for his department. He was not good at making friends in Congress. And he was not adept at explaining the president’s policies to allies and the public.
Start with Congress. From the beginning of Donald Trump’s administration, when Shanahan was nominated as deputy defense secretary, he alienated lawmakers he needed to befriend. At his nomination hearing in 2017, the late Senator John McCain took him to task for his written response to a question about arming Ukraine’s government to fight Russian separatists. Shanahan said he needed to study the issue. Although Shanahan later said he supported arming Ukraine, McCain was so angry he threatened to hold his nomination.
True, Shanahan had a thankless task, especially once he became acting defense secretary: explaining the president’s policies to an often skeptical Congress. Mattis often tried to stop Trump from committing egregious errors. Shanahan was more often an enabler instead of a check on the president’s worst instincts.
Consider an incident in February at the Munich Security Conference, when America’s European allies as well as members of Congress were still trying to get the details about Trump’s initial plan to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria. As the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported at the time, when Shanahan was asked by Senator Lindsey Graham — one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress — for more details about the plan, Shanahan merely repeated the president’s talking points. Graham was incensed. As another senator told Rogin, “Shanahan did not have a good meeting.”
Shanahan also seemed ill-equipped for the bureaucratic infighting that comes with an office in the Pentagon. He allowed National Security Adviser John Bolton to contact lower-ranking Pentagon officials directly, for example, something Mattis and stronger Pentagon chiefs would never have allowed. More generally, says Rick Berger, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former staff member specializing in defense policy for the Senate Budget Committee, “He did not tell the department’s story or try to convince the White House of the importance of defense as a whole.”
Shanahan’s lack of bureaucratic experience (he is a former executive at Boeing), was also apparent when it came to the military’s budget. He didn’t stop the White House from proposing the use of military construction funds, which are treated as sacred by many members of Congress, for building a border wall with Mexico. More recently, he went along with the White House proposal to boost the defense budget through a contingency account that doesn’t allow for planning long-term spending. Shanahan could have resisted these budget shenanigans, but he didn’t.
Of course — as Shanahan’s predecessor memorably observed — the president deserves a secretary of defense whose views are aligned with his. But nothing in Washington comes without some give and take. The most effective Cabinet secretaries understand that they have an obligation to fight for the department they lead, even if that sometimes means standing up to the White House. Shanahan seems never to have learned that lesson.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.