In recent months, US President Donald Trump managed to put his own stamp on a generational shift at the Pentagon, with new leaders emerging to navigate war and peace decisions at a crucial time of political uncertainty in Washington. This comes as the Defense Department addresses the challenge of an increasingly emboldened Iranian regime under significant US economic pressure and a White House that continues to be inclined to withdraw from US engagement in the Middle East.
Mark Esper, who began serving as the 27th US secretary of defense last July, is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and served as an infantry officer in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. This month, General Mark Milley, a Princeton and Columbia graduate who hails from the ranks of the army, officially became the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Kenneth McKenzie, a Marine Corps commander who led battles in the Iraqi and Afghan wars, became the 14th commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) last March. Moving forward and as part of the Trump Administration, these new leaders—all confirmed by near unanimity in the Senate—will play a key role in shaping US foreign policy in what has been an unpredictable presidency, one marked by erratic decisions on Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, China, and North Korea, among other foreign policy challenges.
The Pentagon’s internal balance of power has shifted from the Marine Corps to the Army with the rise of Esper and Milley, compared to their respective Marine Corps predecessors James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford. Moreover, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign advisor David Urban advocated for Esper and Milley, which explains that Trump made these appointments based on his personal interactions and perceived loyalty of the candidates.
The Esper-Milley Alliance
While Esper and Milley have publicly differed with Trump’s ban on transgender service members, they both endorsed his high priority deployment of active-duty troops to the US-Mexico border, with Milley bypassing Dunford and directly speaking to Trump on this issue, when Dunford was chairman. Moreover, Esper and Milley have endorsed Trump’s assessment that the so-called Islamic State (IS) has been defeated, hence contradicting the Pentagon’s inspector general’s report last summer.
The jury is out on how Esper will fit in the tumultuous Trump Administration, given that he does not have Mattis’s gravitas at the Pentagon.
The jury is out on how Esper will fit in the tumultuous Trump Administration, given that he does not have Mattis’s gravitas at the Pentagon. The first test will be navigating relationships across the US administration. Esper has strong ties in Congress from his previous career roles as well as a good working relationship with both Pompeo (who is a former classmate at the US Military Academy) and Milley (their offices were near each other when Esper was Army secretary). There are also those who believe that Milley has Esper “around his finger.” Because he arrived late to his new position, Esper was able to avoid being embroiled in the “Ukrainegate” affair along with other cabinet officials like Pompeo, and this is allowing the Pentagon to take distance from this ongoing scandal. The larger question is whether Esper will represent the Pentagon’s interests and/or will he serve the president’s political agenda.
When asked at his Senate confirmation hearing whether his views align more with those of Trump or Mattis on Syria, Esper replied: “I don’t know where to pick between the two, but clearly I shared Secretary Mattis’s views and I’ve expressed that publicly.” When questioned about what kind of relationship he will have with Trump, Milley confidently replied: “we are not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions. We will give our best military advice regardless of consequences to our self.” Yet, in the first test of US policy in Syria, Esper and Milley did not seem to challenge the White House’s latest decision to clear the Turkish-Syrian border and potentially facilitate the Turkish incursion into Syria. Esper reportedly participated in Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which preceded the decision to withdraw from Syria. The coming weeks will test whether Esper and Milley will be able to preserve the Pentagon’s approach in Syria.
Esper is a China hawk who ultimately seeks to redirect resources away from the Middle East and Afghanistan, which fits Trump’s foreign policy ideas and the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. This should come as no surprise as Esper made it clear during his confirmation hearing that he believes the United States should use its military resources to defeat IS in Syria but not to forge a political settlement or force the withdrawal of what he called “Iranian-commanded forces.” Milley also recognized that theoretically, a conflict with Iran would interfere with the Pentagon’s strategy toward Russia and China. Moreover, Esper wants to renegotiate Iran’s nuclear deal to prevent Tehran, indefinitely (“forever” in his own words), from acquiring a nuclear weapon—not just for 10 to 15 years, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action stipulates. In his confirmation hearing, Milley saw increased “malign” activity from Iran but fell short of advocating for a conventional war with Tehran; instead, he said he preferred to take defensive measures such as sending US naval escorts to the Strait of Hormuz.
Both Milley and CENTCOM Commander McKenzie have benefited in recent months from the unusually long transition in the Pentagon’s leadership; hence they managed to build a strong personal rapport with the president.
On the military side, both Milley and CENTCOM Commander McKenzie have benefited in recent months from the unusually long transition in the Pentagon’s leadership; hence they managed to build a strong personal rapport with the president. Trump picked Milley’s—over Mattis’s—recommendation of General David Goldfein. The US president said about Milley: “I could see in his eyes when I talk about the cost of those bombs, he’s good at throwing them, but he’s also good at pricing them.” While Milley’s temperament made Trump like him, his outgoing character could also have the opposite effect. However, as a member of the military, Milley is shielded from political calculations and it will be interesting to see if Trump has kept the direct line with Milley even after Esper was sworn in, as that would be unusual.
When questioned about the military’s policy on following orders, Milley observed that “when the decision-maker makes a decision, it’s our job to execute” even if the order is “ill-advised.” He added “Frankly, I would expect any soldier, sailor, airman, Marine regardless of rank not to obey an illegal, immoral, or unethical order, even at the risk of their own life. It’s the Nuremberg standard. You can’t hide behind ‘I was ordered to do it’.” Milley looks at US foreign policy as “a combination of puts and takes between various branches of our government” and seems more at ease than Dunford in navigating these internal dynamics of the US administration. He also has proven that he knows how to play the system as a political operator. Some people in the Special Operations community were not pleased with Milley’s involvement in investigating the 2017 ambush in Niger that resulted in the death of four American soldiers. Milley persuaded then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to cut short a more extensive review in order to protect the officer who was potentially responsible for the ambush.
McKenzie the “Maverick”
In this Esper-Milley mix, Kenneth McKenzie appears to be the outsider whom Trump seems to perceive as the maverick in CENTCOM. In his confirmation hearing last December, McKenzie contradicted Trump on IS in Syria saying that “I think that we are very close to finishing the physical destruction of the caliphate … I wouldn’t want to put a timeline on it, but it’s coming close.” He also noted that IS would remain active by going underground as an insurgency.
McKenzie is an outspoken Iran hawk. He lost an ally with the departure of former National Security Advisor John Bolton as they had worked together on Iran—hence Esper and Milley might see McKenzie through this lens. McKenzie told an audience at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies last May that “the long-term, enduring, most significant threat to stability [in the region] is Iran and the Iranian regime’s malign, hegemonistic ambitions across the theater and, indeed, globally … While we do not seek war, Iran should not confuse our deliberate approach with an unwillingness to act.”
Some argue that McKenzie is the rising star in the Trump Administration, describing him as “the true arbiter of American power in the Middle East.” McKenzie sees tensions with Iran as a good argument to keep CENTCOM and the Middle East relevant in the US national security strategy, instead of shifting resources and focus to China and Russia. When it comes to allocating resources to US military engagement in the Middle East, McKenzie wants to have some flexibility, as he noted in June: “I think very carefully and long and hard before I talk about bringing additional resources into the theater. We are talking about it, but it’s going to be based on a running estimate of the situation as we go forward.”
McKenzie’s approach is to deter Iran with increased US deployment without allowing Tehran to provoke a preemptive strike by Washington. In addition to 1,500 troops deployed in May, McKenzie proposed to send 6,000 additional forces to the region, of which Trump only approved 1,000 in June—and the Pentagon made sure to clarify that these additional forces are “defensive” and that the United States “does not seek conflict with Iran.” McKenzie subtly criticized the limited White House approval by noting that this move “caused the Iranians to back up a little bit, but I’m not sure they are strategically backing down” while adding that he “may recommend a return to a larger US military presence in the area to continue to counter Iran.”
It remains to be seen if McKenzie’s clout will diminish with the departure of Bolton and the takeover of Milley. With the White House’s backing, Esper and Milley could easily block McKenzie’s inclination to be more assertive on Iran, and this was evident in the latest Trump Administration decision on Syria. Esper and Milley reflect Trump’s reluctance to go into war; however, both endorse the alliance between Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to maintain maximum pressure on Tehran, which has triggered the recent regional tensions.
Esper might be eclipsed by two larger than life military commanders, Milley and McKenzie, who know how to play the Pentagon’s bureaucratic system and who have direct access to Trump.
Esper might be eclipsed by two larger than life military commanders, Milley and McKenzie, who know how to play the Pentagon’s bureaucratic system and who have direct access to Trump without necessarily passing through the secretary of defense. If Esper has trouble reining in Milley, then Milley himself might also have trouble reining in McKenzie. Given these dynamics, no one should expect the Pentagon to have a significant impact on Trump’s foreign policy in the foreseeable future.
ACW Intern Halla Keir contributed to this analysis paper.