Acting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper flew to Brussels on Tuesday to try to persuade reluctant and increasingly wary Nato allies to work with Washington on Iran sanctions and security in the Middle East.
With barely one day in the job, and amid worries that the US and Tehran may be on a path to war, Mr Esper will have to assure his international counterparts and military commanders in Europe that the US military is in stable and capable hands, even though President Donald Trump has had three Pentagon chiefs in the past seven months.
That’s an extraordinary mission for an interim Pentagon leader at a time of global uncertainty about a range of US defence and foreign policies – not just on Iran but also on countering China and Russia, preventing a resurgence of ISIS and ending the war in Afghanistan.
In the past week alone, the US military was poised to conduct attacks on Iranian air defence sites in retaliation for Tehran’s shooting down of a US military surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump called off the attacks at the last moment, citing the likelihood of Iranian casualties, and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, flew to the Middle East to try to galvanise international support for tougher economic pressure on Tehran.
Mr Esper took over at the Pentagon on Monday for Pat Shanahan, who was acting secretary for six months but quit before he was formally nominated by Trump.
This is by far the longest period in which the Pentagon has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary. Trump’s first defence chief, Jim Mattis, resigned in December in protest of Trump’s policies and what the retired four-star Marine general considered Trump’s destructive approach to allies.
By coincidence, Mr Esper’s first major public appearance will be at Nato, the alliance that Trump has frequently bashed as a collection of freeloaders.
The two-day Nato meeting of defence ministers will include talks on many of the most worrisome international security topics: possible war with Iran; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan; the continued fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq; and tensions with Russia.
Mr Esper, who until Sunday evening had been serving as the civilian leader of the US Army, may be familiar with many of the issues but to European defence ministers he is a relative unknown.
“Expectations are really low. They are not going to expect him to be able to speak authoritatively for the president and go beyond what’s in his talking points,” said Derek Chollet, who served in senior positions at the White House, State Department and Pentagon during the Obama administration. On the other hand, the Brussels gathering allows Mr Esper to meet many of his key counterparts in a short period of time – “sort of like speed dating,” Mr Chollet said.
Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, a former top Nato commander, said the long absence of a Senate-confirmed leader of the Pentagon has had an impact around the world, “where our most important Cabinet department is perceived as weak and without a strong leader”. He added that senior military officers will also need to see a level of stability, because the repeated use of acting secretaries “erodes the principle of civilian control of the military”.
State Department officials said Monday the administration wanted to enlist the help of more countries to monitor potential threats to commercial shipping in and near the Arabian Gulf. This follows allegations – denied by Iran – that Tehran was behind recent attacks on commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
At Nato headquarters, Mr Esper will face the task of explaining the US strategy of compelling Iran through economic pressure to renegotiate the nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of last year.
Trump wants a broader deal that would limit other Iranian behaviour, including its support for what the US calls terrorist groups and its build-up of ballistic missiles. Tehran, however, has said it will not negotiate as long as the US keeps up its sanctions, which Trump intensified on Monday by signing an executive order targeting Iran’s supreme leader and his associates with financial penalties.
On his first day in his new role, Mr Esper wrote in a message to all Pentagon employees that the transition from Mr Shanahan does not signal a change in strategic priorities, which remain the same: make the military better prepared for combat, strengthen international alliances, and improve the Pentagon’s business practices.
Katie Wheelbarger, a senior Pentagon policy adviser on international security, said the timing of the Nato meeting would work well for Mr Esper.
“It’s actually fortuitous that on the first week the new acting secretary is on the job that he will be able to have face-to-face conversations with all his counterparts in the alliance,” she said. “We come with a message of continuity, that a personnel transition does not mean a change in policy, particularly no change in US adherence and devotion to Nato.”
Mr Wheelbarger said Mr Esper would bring the allies up to date on the situation with Iran, including the intelligence information that prompted the US to send an aircraft carrier and other military assets to the Gulf region in early May in response to what it called heightened Iranian threats.