The man is so beautifully bland. In fact, I’d wager that only a tiny segment of Americans could name the current Secretary of Defense—and far fewer could pick him out of a lineup. Perhaps that’s the point. President Trump, a celebrity ham, has tired of sharing the stage with big-name advisers such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton. So they’re both gone. In their place, Trump has installed faceless bureaucrats to run the most powerful national security state in human history. And the rest of us hardly notice.
Trump’s appointment of Mark Esper as head of the largest and most active Cabinet department, and the new Defense Secretary’s near unanimous approval by the U.S. Senate, is no less of a scandal than Trump’s apparent efforts to seek foreign interference in the 2020 elections. Only it isn’t.
Still, the nomination of Esper, a recent lobbyist for the defense contracting corporation Raytheon, ranks as one of the most egregious illustrations of the “revolving door” between lobbyists and the Defense Department. It’s crony capitalism in fatigues, and while nothing new, a clear indication that things have only worsened under our reality-show-mogul-president.
Of course, seen through the rose-colored glasses of American empire, Esper is highly qualified to head the Defense Department. He’s a West Point graduate, former Army infantry officer, recipient of a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and a doctorate in public policy from George Washington University, and has past experience working in the Pentagon.
If one digs further, however, Esper is wildly problematic—loaded with conflicts of interest, a veteran of the (should be) discredited neoconservative Bush-era DOD, and little more than a corporate “company man.” He didn’t just work for Raytheon, he lobbied on the defense contractor’s behalf only recently. Under rather sharp questioning by Sen. Elizabeth Warren during his confirmation hearings, Esper refused to recuse himself from participating in government business involving Raytheon. In typically lifeless language, Esper replied that “On the advice of my ethics folks at the Pentagon, the career professionals: No, their recommendation is not to.” How’s that for accepting responsibility? No matter, he was swiftly and quietly confirmed by a vote of 90-8 in the Senate.
Expect another banner year for Raytheon. It’s already the third-largest U.S. defense contractor, and produces, among other tools of destruction, Paveway precision-guided missiles—the very weapons that Congress recently sought to stop shipping to Saudi Arabia due to (rather tardy) concerns about the heads of Yemeni civilians upon which they’re dropped.
I predict more deals and more taxpayer billions for Raytheon with Esper at the Defense helm. Not that the company has done poorly during the Trump years. In 2018, Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy candidly quipped that “It’s the best time that we’ve ever seen for the defense industry.” Not for indebted taxpayers, bombed-out Middle Easterners or U.S. soldiers still dying in endless wars, it’s not. But sure, it truly is the best of times for what prominent American leaders—once upon a time—labeled the “merchants of death.”
Conflicts of interest, sliding seamlessly between defense contracting boards and the Pentagon, and securing post-government largesse on corporate boards, that’s an old story indeed. Looking back to 2001, most Defense Secretaries have troublesome private sector connections. Donald Rumsfeld entered the Pentagon after a 24-year business career; Robert Gates was on the board of directors of Fidelity Investments and the Parker Drilling Company; Chuck Hagel served on the boards of Chevron and Deutsche Bank; Ash Carter—an exception—was mostly an academic and a bureaucratic wonk, but still consulted for Goldman Sachs. All made millions.
That covers the Bush and Obama years. What we’ve seen in the Trump administration, is, however, something far more brazen. His three Secretaries of Defense (one of whom, Patrick Shanahan, was only acting head) have been unapologetically ensconced in the world of defense contracting and corporate lobbying.
“Saint” Jim Mattis had, while still a general, encouraged the military to buy the blood test products of Theranos, then dropped the service and joined its corporate board. But Theranos’ products did not work, the deal described by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an “elaborate, years-long fraud.” Mattis also served, both before and after his Pentagon stint, on the board of General Dynamics, the nation’s fifth largest defense contractor. Nonetheless, Mattis easily slid through his confirmation and was praised by all types of mainstream media as the administration’s “adult in the room.”
After Mattis resigned, he being unable to countenance even Trump’s hints at modest withdrawal from the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, Patrick Shanahan stepped in as interim defense chief. Unlike his predecessor, Shanahan didn’t emerge from the military, but rather from yet another defense contractor, Boeing, for which he’s worked some 30 years. Trump thought that was dandy and nominated him to officially replace Mattis, but Shanahan decided to withdraw due to alleged personal scandals. Enter Mark Esper, Raytheon lobbyist extraordinaire.
Esper’s in good company in Washington’s military-industrial swamp. Recent reports by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO)—a vital organization that hardly any American has heard of—identified “645 instances in the past 10 years in which a retired senior official, member of Congress or senior legislative staff member became employed as a registered lobbyist, board member or business executive at a major government contractor.” POGO also noted that “those walking through the revolving door included 25 generals, nine admirals, 43 lieutenant generals and 23 vice admirals.”
All of which begs some questions and provides some disturbing answers. Perhaps we ought to ditch the myth that the Defense Secretary simply heads the Pentagon, and admit that Esper is really the emperor of a far grander military-industrial complex that includes a veritable army of K-Street lobbyists and venal arms dealers. Maybe it’s time to concede that unelected national security czars, and not a stalemated bought-and-sold Congress, run national defense and set the gigantic Pentagon budget. Perhaps we should confess to ourselves that the nation’s vaunted soldiers are little more than political pawns in a game that’s far bigger, far more Kafkaesque, than those troopers could begin to fathom. And, finally, let’s admit one last thing: Few of us care.
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Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The LA Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.