Donald Trump names new defence boss, India looks for next Mattis
US President Donald Trump on Friday named Mark Esper his nominee as the next permanent secretary of defence and announced other senior level appointments to bring stability at the Pentagon at a time when it is confronted with a potentially escalating military conflict with Iran.
Trump had named Esper acting defence secretary earlier this week after Patrick Shanahan, the then nominee for the position, withdrew his candidacy over family issues.
Esper will need to be confirmed by the US senate, which is a time-consuming process and could be one of the factors to determine the timing of the next India-US 2+2 ministerial involving the external affairs and defence ministers of the two countries.
The inaugural meeting in 2018 was delayed because Trump had abruptly fired one of the two US principals, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The US had to wait for his replacement, Mike Pompeo, to be confirmed to announce the meeting, which, however, was postponed yet again because he was despatched to North Korea for talks leading to the historic Singapore summit.
The first 2+2 was eventually held in September, in New Delhi. It’s Washington DC’s turn to host it this year.
Not much could be ascertained of Esper’s views on India, but he has very large shoes to fill at the Pentagon in New Delhi’s estimation.
Jim Mattis, the previous permanent defence secretary, had emerged as this administration’s most enthusiastic supporter of ties with India. He had publicly pressed US Congress to waive sanctions for India’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems as part of a long-term US plan to gently wean away India from its chief arms supplier; renamed a major US military entity as Indo-Pacific Command to reflect shared strategic interests and concerns regarding China; and rolled out the red carpet for defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman in 2018, giving her the best reception for any Indian defence minister.
Mattis’s exit, over policy differences with Trump, rankles Indians dealing with the Trump administration, both officials and private sector executives. The Trump cabinet has looked starkly bereft, to them, of a principal as bullish on India as Mattis.
Can Esper fill the gap for India?
Esper’s nomination was announced along with two others: David Norquist as the next deputy secretary of defense, the number 2 man at the Pentagon; and Ryan D McCarthy as Secretary of the Army, to fill a position left vacant by Esper’s rapid elevation to the No 1 position in US defense department.
Esper is a US army veteran who was in the same class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the US military academy. After serving in the Army, which included deployments in the first Gulf War and Europe, for 21 years, he worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staff member with leading lawmakers of the time and then returned to the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Esper then moved to the private sector and served at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank; Raytheon Industries, a major defense contractor; and the US chamber of commerce, the most powerful lobby group in the United States with the largest war-chest.