Mark Esper’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday provided some insights into what his priorities would be if confirmed as defense secretary, and how he viewed the current threats to the United States. His written answers to the committee’s advance policy questions also contained interesting, and sometimes alarming, nuggets. Here are some of the main takeaways from both.
Is Esper more aligned with Mattis or Trump on U.S. alliances?
During the hearing, many of the senators sought Esper’s views on the importance of U.S. alliances, and Esper did much to allay their concerns. In response to a question from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), expressing concern that the Trump administration has been alienating the country’s allies, Esper assured the committee that he himself had a “personal commitment to NATO” and that he viewed the U.S. commitment to defend any NATO member state if attacked as “ironclad.”
This could put Esper on a collision course with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly questioned U.S. mutual defense commitments (with Japan and South Korea), criticised fellow NATO members, and even reportedly considered withdrawing the United States from the alliance altogether. Indeed, the president’s opposition to the United States’ traditional alliances seemed to be one of the major reasons why former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) asked whether Esper’s views on alliances would be “more aligned with [those of] Secretary Mattis or more aligned with President Trump?” to which Esper responded that although he “[didn’t] know where to pick between the two,” he had “clearly shared Secretary Mattis’ views and . . . expressed that publicly.”
Esper reaffirmed this again when pressed on the issue by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), saying he would impress upon the president the importance “not just [of] NATO but all of our allies and partners.” He also affirmed that he was “fully committed” to the international rules based order. However, his views on alliances were not totally divergent with those of the president’s, particularly with regard to the defense spending of U.S. allies. He insisted, for instance, that “successful collective security depends on everybody doing their fair share.” If confirmed, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, Esper may have on the president’s approach to U.S. allies, or whether Esper will grow frustrated like his predecessor.
U.S. objectives in Syria
Although it wasn’t discussed during the hearing, Esper’s description of U.S. objectives in Syria, provided in his written responses to the committee’s advance policy questions, deserves more scrutiny.
Q: What is your understanding of the current U.S. strategy and objectives in Syria?
A: The U.S. Syria strategy seeks to achieve three primary objectives: 1) the enduring defeat of ISIS; 2) an irreversible political process in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 calling for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria; and 3) the withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces in Syria.
It is worth noting that the United States may not have domestic (or international) legal authority to pursue objectives two and three by military means. As Just Security’s Tess Bridgeman has explained, under U.S. law, American operations in Syria are conducted under the authority of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the wake of 9/11 to permit combat operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban (and later other groups affiliated with al-Qaeda like al-Shabaab in Somalia), and has since been stretched, some would say tenuously, to cover anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. It does not grant authority for countering Syria or Iran (outside of genuine self-defense situations) as objectives two and three seem to envisage. Indeed, Esper seemed to be aware of this in the hearing when pressed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on the scope of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in stating that the 2001 AUMF “applies to terrorist groups and organizations,” and thus does not provide legal authority “with regard to the country of Iran.” The same could be said of Syria.
In its written questions, the committee was asking about U.S. objectives more broadly, so perhaps Esper’s answer encompassed actions outside of the military, but if that’s the case, it is worth asking how the U.S. intends to accomplish the “withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces in Syria” with or without the U.S. military.
The future of Afghanistan: Divorced from reality?
Astonishingly, the topic of Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been engaged in the longest war in American history, did not come up during the hearing. But Esper did address the topic in his advance policy questions. The questions from the committee, as well as Esper’s responses, do not reflect the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, where violence is surging even as peace talks continue, or the political reality in the United States, where Trump is eager to expedite the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, so that he can be seen to have fulfilled one of his campaign promises as he runs for president again.
Q: In your view, should U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan be tied to the achievement of certain conditions on the ground? If so, what conditions would you factor into your recommendation to the President on troop levels in Afghanistan, if confirmed?
A: U.S. force levels should be tied to levels of violence and the ability of our Afghan partners to mitigate terrorist threats. As levels of violence decline and the capabilities of our Afghan partners improve, force levels could be adjusted accordingly. Progress in peace negotiations would reduce levels of violence and therefore factor into recommendations on force levels.
Q: Is it your understanding that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is currently “conditions-based”? If so, what is your understanding of the conditions prerequisite to eliminating U.S. military presence there?
A: Yes. As it currently stands, our strategy in Afghanistan is conditions based. Withdrawal of foreign forces is one component of the negotiations with the Taliban, along with reduction in violence, intra-Afghan dialogue, and assurances on counterterrorism.
In its ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, the United States is seeking assurances that Afghanistan will not once again be used as a base for terrorism. This would mean that the Taliban would need to disavow al-Qaeda, with which it has had an alliance for over 20 years. It remains to be seen what type of assurances the Taliban will give the United States, and whether those promises should be believed. The idea that after 20 years of fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Afghan security forces will team up with the Taliban to fight al-Qaeda is far-fetched, to say the least, but this scenario is contemplated in the questions for Esper, providing some insight into potential U.S. expectations.
Q: In your opinion, does the Taliban have the will and capability to undertake counterterrorism efforts against ISIS? Against al-Qaeda?
A: If confirmed, I will support DoD’s efforts to consider carefully the terrorist threats that remain in Afghanistan and the resources and capabilities needed to defeat them. In the event of a peace deal, we would have to evaluate the Taliban’s ability to work with the Afghan security forces to combat terrorist threats, such as ISIS-K and al-Qaeda.
When asked by Reed whether he agreed with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ assessment that a war with Iran would be “catastrophic,” Esper responded that in his view the United States “do[es] not want” and is “not seeking war with Iran.” Instead, Esper was keen to emphasize the “need to get back on a diplomatic channel.” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Esper on what steps the Defense Department is taking to “avoid a miscalculation that could lead to a military confrontation with Iran.” Esper answered by referring to “Operation Sentinel” whereby the United States, in concert with its allies, provides “monitoring in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman” and provides “escorts and sentries to put ourselves in a place where we deter provocation or miscalculation.” He cited the thwarting of an alleged Iranian attempt to interfere with a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz by the British Navy as an example of how these steps prevent the escalation of tensions in the region. Throughout the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and its civilian and military leaders, have counseled against escalating tensions with Iran, and Esper appears to be following in those footsteps.
With regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Esper, in response to a question from Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), advocated “an updated version” of the Iran nuclear agreement, or JCPOA, as the main way of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Esper envisaged that this “modified JCPOA” would ensure “a verifiable, irreversible and permanent prohibition on [Iran’s] nuclear . . . efforts and [address its] means of delivering ICBMs” (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles).
China, and U.S.-Chinese near-peer competition, was a recurring theme of the hearing. Esper described the threat China poses to the United States as a long-term threat.
“The Chinese are very patient,” he said, “they are playing the long game and we are playing the short game.”
Esper expressed concerns that the Chinese are using their “economic might,” which he thought could “match . . . and possibly surpass” that of the United States at some point in the future, to pull “likely partners, if not . . . current ones” away from the United States. With regard to technology transfer and China closing the technological gap between it and the United States, Esper stated that in doing so, the Chinese have been “perpetrating the greatest theft of intellectual property in human history.”
Nevertheless, Esper stated that “we do not want to be adversaries [with China] . . . we want to be competitors . . . in the economic domain, but we have to make sure we are addressing the security concerns first.” He reaffirmed a diplomacy – and deterrence – first approach when responding to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who mooted the prospect of armed conflict with China in Taiwan.
When asked by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) how the United States should approach deterring the full range of threats China poses, Esper advocated a “whole of government approach,” encompassing diplomatic tools, foreign aid and the military. He encouraged U.S. allies to approach China in a similar fashion, and sought to “continue building alliances and partnerships” to confront challenges posed by China.
On the potential for a lasting Sino-Russian partnership, and whether this constitutes cause for concern, Esper seemed to indicate that such a prospect is not imminent. “In some places they are coordinating, in some places they are cooperating. . . in some places they are competing,” Esper said, citing the Arctic as a major area where Russia and China are competing.
Whether it was his remarks during the hearing or his written answers to lawmakers’ questions, Esper described a Russia very much at odds with the one the president presents. In this way, Esper is aligned with much of the Trump administration, which, on the whole, takes a far tougher stance against Russia than the president.
Esper said he regarded the prospect of further Russian election interference as an “ongoing threat,” but also one that was not limited to Russia. “There are other countries who want to influence or change our elections,” he said. Although he could not guarantee that the 2020 Presidential election would proceed without issues, he expressed confidence in the election security measures in place and praised the Trump administration’s new policy directives (i.e. NSPM 13) for enabling U.S. Cyber Command to be “more offensive,” and to “lean forward” when addressing election interference activities.
Speaking generally on cyber threats, Esper described the United States as being “at war,” and “constantly battling countries like Russia and China.” “We have to get used to the fact that this is a new domain of warfare and that we will probably be in constant conflict with countries below the threshold of kinetic conflict,” he said. “That’s just the way the world will be from now on.” For the United States to prevail, it would have to “continue to develop and . . . retain cutting edge capabilities and overmatch in that area.” With Esper at the helm, the recent increase in U.S. cyber operations looks set to continue.
Esper did not mince words on Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems.“ You can either have the S-400 or the F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter],” Esper said, “You cannot have both.” While he credited Turkey for being a “longstanding and very capable NATO ally,” he expressed disappointment at “how they have drifted” away from the West.
The Pentagon is taking steps to suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, according to Esper’s written answers, including removing all Turkish F-35 personnel based in the United States by July 31.
Ethical considerations: Warren v. Esper
The toughest questioning Esper faced Tuesday was from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) regarding his links to defense contractor Raytheon. Esper previously worked as Raytheon’s top lobbyist in Washington before entering government as secretary of the Army in 2017. He is due over $1 million in deferred compensation from his time at the company, which he says is not contingent on the company’s performance. Warren wanted to know whether Esper would fully recuse himself from all Pentagon matters involving Raytheon, and commit to not re-entering the private sector for four years after leaving the defense secretary post. Esper refused to give such guarantees “on the advice of [his] ethics folks at the Pentagon,” but pledged to “continue to abide with the [ethics] rules and regulations.” Warren found Esper’s refusal to recuse himself “outrageous,” and concluded that without those guarantees it would remain unclear whether Esper would be “making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not in [his] own financial interests,” and consequently that he “should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.” Raytheon is one of the largest employers in Warren’s state of Massachusetts.
Answering the wrong question on collective self-defense?
In the advance policy questions, under the section titled, “Use of Force,” Esper was asked about collective self-defense. His answer is a head-scratcher as it doesn’t address the legal principles that would factor into consideration of the use of force in collective self-defense. Surely that legal analysis is what the senators were after, as many of them have been concerned that the White House could rely on the concept of “collective self-defense” to use force against adversaries not covered by the current AUMFs. Here is the exchange:
Q: What factors would you consider, if confirmed, in determining which forces of other nations are eligible for Collective Self-Defense by U.S. forces, and under what conditions
A: Rules of engagement authorizing U.S. forces to come to the assistance of foreign forces often are a necessary element of working alongside foreign partners. In considering such rules of engagement, I would expect to prioritize foreign forces that are participating in a combined operation with U.S. forces, such as combined counterterrorism operations. I would also prioritize forces of foreign nations that host U.S. forces, because those forces may have important responsibilities for the security of U.S. forces and facilities in the host nation. Lastly, I would prioritize nations that the United States has an important national interest in defending, such as a mutual defense treaty commitment.
There were many issues that were not discussed during Esper’s hearing, and in many ways, despite the chaos and controversial policies of the Trump administration, and the unusual upheaval in leadership at the Pentagon, Esper’s hearing was mostly “business as usual.” American support for the Saudi Arabian-led conflict in Yemen, nor the controversial transfer of nuclear and other weapons technology to the Saudis, especially in the wake of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was not raised. Also U.S. operations in Somalia and the effects of climate change were hardly addressed in the hearing nor in the written questions.
Following Tuesday’s pro forma session, it’s safe to say Esper will no longer be “acting” defense secretary, but will soon take on the role in a more permanent capacity.