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Patrick Shanahan, acting defense secretary, succeeds James Mattis just 18 months after arrival

January 1, 2019

The U.S. military is waking up to a new boss with the new year, one who is definitely not the same as the old boss.

Outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, handed over the reins at the Pentagon on Monday night to a 30-year veteran of the aerospace industry, and military analysts say new acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan will bring his trademark business-like approach to the role and largely steer clear of the bitter policy fights with President Trump that doomed his predecessor.

Mr. Shanahan, who spent three decades as a top executive at Boeing before becoming the Pentagon’s No. 2 in July 2017, will serve in an acting capacity following the clashes over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan and a host of other issues that led to the abrupt termination of Mr. Mattis’ tenure earlier this month. Defense Department officials said the formal hand-off, done via phone call, took place just before the calendar turned to 2019.

Ahead of the transition, Pentagon insiders have expressed full confidence in Mr. Shanahan, stressing that he’s often been at Mr. Mattis’ side during meetings with lawmakers, White House officials, diplomats and foreign defense officials. Inside the building, there’s little doubt the 56-year-old MIT graduate is capable of running the Defense Department and representing the Pentagon on Capitol Hill and around the world.

Mr. Mattis struck the same notes in a farewell address to U.S. troops on Monday, while offering what some saw as another subtle criticism of President Trump’s foreign policy approach and the president’s willingness to challenge traditional alliances.

“Our department’s leadership, civilian and military, remains in the best possible hands,” he said. “I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life. Our Department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult. So keep the faith in our country and hold fast alongside our allies, aligned against our foes.”

But Mr. Mattis’ confidence in his successor doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Shanahan will now be leading a massive organization that, until 18 months ago, he’d never been a part of.

By his own admission, Mr. Shanahan’s job duties over the past 18 months have centered largely on the business side of running the Pentagon, not big-picture foreign policy decisions, and it’s unclear whether he has the same kinds of deeply developed, forceful views as Mr. Mattis, who fought in the first and second wars with Iraq and in Afghanistan and is considered a renowned scholar of military history.

“The secretary has the traditional role of being, you know, like, the CEO, if we were talking in terms of business vernacular,” Mr. Shanahan told CNBC in a recent interview. “Really, up and out. And my job is really down and in.”

Indeed, Mr. Shanahan has been in the trenches at the Defense Department on a host of issues. He’s taken the lead on developing the Pentagon’s massive budget a task that proved even more difficult than usual this year amid changing spending plans from the White House. The president initially wanted to trim the Pentagon budget for the coming fiscal year from $733 billion to $700 billion, but abruptly reversed course and raised the figure to $750 billion.

The responsibility of adjusting budget preparations midstream fell to Mr. Shanahan.

“It’s the biggest budget in the government,” he said. “And it’s not an exercise in just taking inputs and then adding them all up. It’s an exercise that says, ‘If we spend the money on these things, will we be able to have a certain level of readiness? Will we be able to field new technology that works on a timely basis? Will we spend money in the right areas to recruit and retain an all-volunteer military?’”

In addition to the time-consuming role as budget point man, Mr. Shanahan also helped get the Pentagon’s first full audit in decades past the finish line. He’s taken the lead role in coordinating a host of competing and occasionally feuding interests across the military services in planning and implementing Mr. Trump’s new Space Force.

Mr. Shanahan also played a key part in setting up the Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, which represents the branch’s most significant reorganization in decades.

Questions ahead

While there’s little doubt he has the business experience and acumen to run a massive organization such as the Defense Department, Mr. Shanahan’s background and lack of clear foreign policy view have left many questions unanswered as he assumes his new job.

For starters, lawmakers of both parties have raised concerns about his long career at Boeing, one of the largest Defense Department contractors and a company that hauls in huge amounts of taxpayer money each year.

In September alone, the company reportedly got nearly $14 billion in Pentagon contracts.

The late Sen. John McCain, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time of Mr. Shanahan’s confirmation hearings, openly worried about the connection.

“I have to have confidence that the fox is not going to be put back into the henhouse,” the Arizona Republican and frequent Pentagon critic said at the time. “I’m not overjoyed that you came from one of the five corporations that receive 90 percent of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Some progressives also have cast Mr. Shanahan in a similar light. John Nichols, a writer with liberal magazine The Nation, included Mr. Shanahan in a book that laid out “the most dangerous people in America” in the Trump era.

“If there was a living, breathing embodiment of the military-industrial complex, it was Patrick Shanahan,” Mr. Nichols wrote.

Insiders say Mr. Shanahan’s background earned him points with the president, who has shown that he values the opinion of those with experience in corporate America.

Beyond that, the White House could welcome a defense secretary who’s more willing to go along with Mr. Trump’s unconventional approach than was Mr. Mattis.

“Because he doesn’t understand national security, and doesn’t have the moral and ethical constraints that Mattis has, he’s made no enemies,” a former senior defense official told The New Yorker last week. “He hasn’t taken a position on anything.”

But critics say that his lack of international stature and policy expertise compared to his predecessor will leave Mr. Shanahan with less power in policy debates with other Trump aides, notably National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pentagon officials strongly push back on the assertion that Mr. Shanahan doesn’t understand national security or foreign policy.

It’s unclear how long the former Boeing executive will serve in an acting capacity or if Mr. Trump eventually will nominate him to take the position.

The job requires Senate confirmation.

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