By Morgan Robertson
On Monday evening The LEAP Ambassadors headed south towards Houston to attend yet another amazing World Affairs Council event, this one featuring former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper. From June 2019 to November 2020, Esper served as Secretary of Defense under the Trump administration–during what he concedes were highly unusual times. WAC Director Maryanne Maldonado led off the evening…
…and Dean Jim Granada from the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston introduced Director of Programs Ronan O’Malley, who would lead the discussion with Mark Esper.
Mr. O’Malley began by asking a question about Esper’s hero: George C. Marshall.
Esper was born in Marshall’s hometown, and during his time at West Point, Esper studied Marshall the man and military strategist. Marshall was known widely for his characteristics of honor and integrity, which Esper tries to live by.
Right off the bat, it was clear that Esper would not shy away from the harder topics. The first question was based on working with President Trump and the atmosphere in the Capitol.
Esper acknowledged the difficulties, noting that while some of the media reports were exaggerated, he and other Cabinet officials had to do a lot of “managing up”: that is, managing their supervisor, to ensure that actions detrimental to the United States weren’t turned into policy.
Ronan and Esper then explored different parts of American military experience in recent years, including turmoil in North Korea, the strategic prioritization of Afghanistan, and domestic protests surrounding the George Floyd protests.
Presidential focus for the past 20 years, irrespective of party, has been on Afghanistan. As Secretary of Defense, Esper identified bring some sort of conclusion to the Afghani war as a priority, but he identified numerous steps he would have taken to avoid the catastrophic pullout that the US undertook a year or so ago.
More recently, Esper was confronted with a (quite literally) trigger-happy Chief of State during the protests surrounding the George Floyd killing. Esper clearly doesn’t relish the government’s frequent turn to the military to solve things outside their wheelhouse: they weren’t, for example, the best choice to call on during COVID, and they weren’t designed to quell domestic unrest–and they definitely weren’t going to “shoot protestors,” as the President had purportedly inquired about.
While Esper was often critical of Trump, he also noted that some of the criticism was overblown. He noted that some of Trump’s unconventional tactics ended up effective, and he noted that some of Trump’s policies have been followed by Biden.
The evening was concluded with a few more thoughts from Esper, particularly his thanks to those who serve, and his hope that military service would be less frequently invoked–but, when invoked, more widely participated in by the general public.