Pentagon’s Policy Chief Under Fire as Senior Officials Head for the Exits

Lara Seligman

Foreign Policy Magazine

December 18, 2019, 9:11 AM

Of 59 Senate-confirmed positions, 15 are currently vacant, according to a department spokesperson–and that number will rise to 18 when Schriver, Stewart and Bingen depart. Adding to the strain on the senior leadership, multiple officials, including Stewart, are serving in two senior roles at once.

Three years into U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, the Pentagon is bleeding senior policymakers faster than it can replace them, an exodus that many current and former defense officials largely blame on a toxic work environment created by John Rood, the Defense Department’s top policy official.

Soon after the Senate confirmed Mark Esper as Pentagon chief this summer, the new defense secretary pledged to rebuild the senior ranks of the department. But friction within the Pentagon’s policy shop, particularly frustration with Rood’s leadership style, has stymied progress. Nearly a dozen current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity pointed to Rood as a major contributor to the departures and the Pentagon’s struggle to fill the empty posts.


Insiders noted that the department’s staffing problem runs deeper than Rood. The Pentagon’s civilian leadership has struggled to recruit top talent since the beginning of the Trump administration. Many national security experts signed “Never Trump” letters that disqualified them for roles in the administration; still others refused to work for Trump. The shallow bench got even thinner after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned a year ago and the department’s senior leadership fell into chaos. During the nearly seven months following Mattis’s departure that the Pentagon went without a permanent leader, the number of empty or only temporarily filled Senate-confirmed posts rose to a high of 19 in July.

“I don’t know that policy has ever had a chance to get its legs under it in this administration so far,” said one former defense official.

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