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Top leadership vacancies plague Trump's Pentagon

An acting defense secretary lacks the political capital and internal confidence of a permanent one. The Senate Confirmation employs a secretary with explicit and implicit powers – from the ability to recruit and set long-term policies in the Pentagon to the power to communicate authoritatively with foreign counterparts and members of the Congress

This absence was on full display last week as the President greeted Iran, ultimately pulling back at the very last minute. Though Esper was in the room, along with his predecessor Patrick Shanahan, who served as acting secretary from more than six months before stepping down over the weekend, was not in a position to play what several experts and former Pentagon officials say is the crucial role of and the Defense Secretary ̵
1; to reconcile the goals and agenda of the administration with the realities presented by the military

"It's Not Good." "Eric Edelman, the former under secretary, of Defense for Policy in the George W. Bush administration, told CNN. "You have to have a civilian perspective, one that brings some political sense."

There has not been a permanent Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense since James Mattis resigned from position on December 31 record amount of time for the Pentagon to go without a leader.

Compounding that, the Department is in the midst of an unprecedented period of leadership turmoil. Esper is briefly briefed on the complex responsibilities of the acting secretary. But thanks to the federal vacancy law, Esper will have to step down as acting secretary once he is formally nominated for the permanent position.

When that happens, Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, is likely to become the new acting secretary (19659006) The prospect of three acting secretaries of defense within a few weeks could have been a success in the United States, have been avoided if the President acted more quickly to nominate either Shanahan or a different candidate for the top job. Instead, the Pentagon has been in a limbo for half a year.

Pentagon on autopilot

This is not to say that the Pentagon can not function without permanent civilian leadership. The Defense Department consists of massive, largely self-sustaining bureaucracies – the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military branches and operational commands, for starters – meaning the Pentagon's daily operations will not shut down or even noticeably slow without a permanent secretary .

But there's a reason it's designed to have a strong, Senate-confirmed civilian at the top. It's as much about political decisions as it's operational ones. The secretary's job is to set and communicate policies so that military officials can execute that policy.

But an acting secretary is limited in that capacity. For starters, no one's clear how long they will be in the job. They are barred from recruiting and retaining lower-level officials. They can not institute long-term reforms, and it is difficult for them to command authority both in Congress and on the international stage. Having an acting secretary in charge of the Pentagon is not a big problem for a few weeks. But when it lasts for six months, the ramifications begin to pile up, according to a dozen defense experts and former officials who spoke to CNN

"Leaving the role acting for such an insanely long time has hamstrung the ability of the The Pentagon will operate in a normal way, not just in time of crisis, but also on long-term plans, "said Peter W. Singer, defense expert and senior fellow at the New America Foundation

Mark Hertling, a retired Army commander and a CNN contributor, says the uniformed officers at the Pentagon, he talks to tell him the turnover and instability among the Pentagon's civilian leadership has left many in the military brass feeling as if they are on their own.

"When there's a lack of guidance from civilian officials, people are taking a little bit of risk," said Hertling. "Now that you have the constant churn, that's one after another, it really puts some extra stress on the military guys."

Stress can be particularly acute for military officers on temporary assignment to the Pentagon. One retired officer tells CNN those servicemembers, who have been accustomed to "getting things done" in the field, have been frustrated by how the bureaucratic process has slowed down these past few months due to the unclear chain of civilian command

"When you have that "Gary Schmitt, a national security strategy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute."

The prolonged acting status for top Pentagon officials may be emboldening US adversaries. Several republican supporters of the President in Washington have told CNN in recent days that they fear the power vacuum at the Defense Department may have fueled the current crisis with Iran

No more Mattis

Mattis's resignation at the end of 2018 came at a crucial time for the Pentagon and the administration's defense policy. The US military began drawing its presence in Syria in January. Eight US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan between January and April as President continued to withdraw from that country too. And in February, the President held a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seeking to curb that country's nuclear program

In the first half of 2019, there was also a turmoil in Venezuela, ships and planes, plus the regular defense budget request process – all before the crisis with Iran intensified in recent weeks.

"It's an increasingly complex time with a whole bunch of problem sets," Hertling said. "It's a zoo," he added.

Shanahan cut short

Even after Trump decided to nominate Shanahan for the full-time role of the defense secretary, the former Boeing executive and Mattis deputy was still widely seen as temporary, even within the administration

That created a vacuum on Trump's national security team that was filled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Many Washington observers clearly saw Shanahan as a placeholder.

"When you are in a Cabinet meeting or the Situation Room … everyone is polite but there is this unwritten thing where the permanent guy's views are going to be given more weight than an acting," said Tom Spoehr, a former

That perception was also alive on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers worried that Shanahan lacked the stature of Mattis, a retired four-star Marine General. The acting secretary failed to impress when appearing before the congressional hearings and even many Republicans were more resigned than enthusiastic about Shanahan's imminent nomination.

That had clear implications for the Trump agenda. In an appearance in March before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shanahan struggled to defend the Space Force proposal. Even Republican lawmakers predisposed to support the President came away from the hearing sounding skeptical.

Edelman, the former Pentagon official, says he is concerned with how the lack of a permanent Defense Secretary has exacerbated an existing problem for the Department – namely, the lack of civilian officials who bring political considerations to the table.

"We have already had a civilian-military imbalance at the Department of Defense, and Trump is making it worse, "he told CNN. "

UPDATE: This story has been updated with a timeline of events since Jim Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defense.

CNN's Jamie Gangel and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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