On Monday, only days after losing a re-election to President-Elect Joe Biden, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he had fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Christopher Miller, a former special forces operative and defense contractor, will take up the role in Esper’s stead.
“I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller,” his tweet read, “the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately..”
Speculations about the circumstances surrounding Esper’s firing have varied, from displeasure with Esper’s opposing views on Trump’s Insurrection Act in June, to sheer Washington D.C. cronyism. Whatever the reason, Esper’s firing will have implications both domestically and abroad.
Trump’s move is significant for several reasons.
First, when a president wins an election, it is customary for that person to make alterations to their cabinet as they see fit. When a president loses, however, that person typically leaves the sitting cabinet undisturbed and waits for the next president’s inauguration.
In fact, the last time a cabinet member was removed under a lame duck president was in December, 1968, with the departure of then-Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler.
Given this context, Trump’s firing of Esper acts as yet another example of his norm-bashing approach to governance and is perhaps also an insight into his plans for the next 90 days.
The move also has ramifications for many of the United States’ military partners who will now have been forced to work with five different acting United States secretaries of defense (including Mark Esper twice) in only three years. For reference, the prior three years only saw one Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter.
For the past few years, Morocco has made great strides in creating its own domestic military industry. The development of this initiative took another large step in October, when Mark Esper visited North Africa. This included a trip to Morocco, where he signed a 10-year military cooperation accord.
Now, with Esper out of office, a new regime entering within months, and an unknown quantity in Christopher C. Miller stepping into Esper’s role, there is uncertainty around the United States’ plans in North Africa, around the Mediterranean, and the like.
So what can we expect from Trump’s new secretary of defense appointee?
Miller has spent nearly the entirety of his career fighting terrorism, first in the military, and then as counterterrorism advisor on the United States National Security Council and later as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Additionally, in 2018 Miller was part of the move to expand the scope of terrorist threats to the United States so that it would include Iran, Hezbollah, and domestic terrorists. He also has experience in combating threats from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
To this end, the goals of the United States Department of Defense and the Kingdom of Morocco are aligned–-both parties want to continue combatting growing terrorist insurgencies. The desired approach to carry this out may be different.
Esper was a moderate defense secretary who tried to be apolitical and objective in his decision-making. However, like Trump’s first Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, Trump’s use of the military as a political tool and impulsive actions created tension. Ostensibly, Trump believes that Miller will behave differently.
A member of Trump’s camp, Miller may be less inclined to help support and build military partners globally, and may be more interested in tackling terrorist threats alone. If that is the case, recently-established military partnerships with the United States and other countries may require examination as Miller takes the helm.
This could force Morocco to establish new military partnerships elsewhere.
COVID-19 has forced several African countries to take on more debt to keep operations running smoothly. And over the past decades China has become one of the largest creditors to African countries in the world.
Additionally, as China becomes a larger influence on the African continent as a result of its Belt and Road Initiative, it will be interested in advancing economic development in the region more so than a United States whose military apparatus is in the midst of recalibration.
China also has a penchant for foreign direct investment, something Morocco would be interested in given recent domestic financial moves. An example of this is Morocco’s one billion euro bond issuance in September.
Trump began his presidential tenure unsettling the status quo, and it seems he will leave office doing the same. Pentagon leadership and the United States’ international partners will likely be looking forward to the stability that will accompany the inauguration in the coming months.