Defense Secretary Mark Esper has come under fire from the left. He was accused of favoring an overly military response to the riots that followed the tragic death of George Floyd and was condemned for walking with President Trump across Lafayette Park.
Esper was finally able to tell his side of the story this month at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. He set the record straight in a concise and clear way. No active duty units took part in law enforcement, and the National Guard did not advance on the crowd in Lafayette Park, nor did it fire any rubber bullets or use chemical agents.
Moreover, he affirmed that the United States military has an appropriate constitutional role to play in supporting civil authorities, and that law and order must be returned to the streets of America. In other words, he stands with the president.
That is perhaps why the left has it in for Esper. They despise the president and dislike the defense agenda of the administration. Trump consistently invests in strengthening our armed forces and reorienting military strategy to address this new era of great power competition. No one has done more to advance that agenda than Esper.
His leadership has made real gains on multiple fronts by building a more lethal force, strengthening alliances, and implementing reforms. Readiness levels have steadily improved. New and better ships, planes, and platforms are coming on line. Research and engineering in critical areas such as hypersonics, directed energy, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence have been jump started to give our troops the tools they need to prevail in future combat.
Despite dogged opposition, Esper has managed to keep critical nuclear modernization programs on track to replace the systems built in the 1970s. Budget constraints, with funding essentially a flat line from last year, has inhibited faster progress, but steady improvements are visible across the board. We would love to hear more from the secretary on the recent suggestions to “defund the military” from the left.
Like the president, Esper is no isolationist. He is committed to deploying and employing the forces prudently. Hence, he resisted calls to deplete U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere and pile them into the Indo-Pacific to counter China. He understands that the competition with countries like China and Russia is a global game, one in which we must engage wherever our adversaries choose to compete.
This is not to suggest that the Pentagon isn’t taking China seriously. Unlike previous “Pivots to the Pacific,” Esper’s Defense Department has taken visible action to keep China in check. Freedom of navigation patrols are up; investments in new weaponry and forces geared to Indo-Chinese operations are up, and the presence of multiple Carrier Strike Groups in the South China Sea is now routine.
The administration does continue to struggle with some allies, like Germany and South Korea, to find agreement on appropriate levels of defense burden-sharing. Yet, overall, defense relations with our allies have never been stronger.
Our security relationships with Poland, Israel, India, and the Ukraine are greatly improved. Esper has played an integral role in the administration’s efforts to awaken other nations to the threat of China. The United Kingdom’s recent decision to boot Huawei out of their 5G network, in part because of defense security concerns, is but one example. Another is the Philippines’ June announcement that they will not be pulling out of a mutual defense pact with the United States, as had been previously announced.
As for departmental reforms, Esper has been impressively strong in this regard. As Secretary of the Army, he instigated the “night court” which found $5 billion in savings that could be used to fund modernization programs. Upon becoming defense secretary, he implemented a rigorous review of the Pentagon.
Esper is a serious and effective leader: a straight-shooter with the president, willing to respectfully work with Congress, and a team player in the Cabinet. He cares about the troops. He loves his country. He is laser-focused on meeting the president’s charge to get America’s military ready for great power competition, and he has delivered constructive change that’s been missing across the Potomac for over a decade. It’s a shame that the left can’t let him get on with the job that he’s doing so well.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/27/20