The way personnel spin through Washington’s infamous revolving door between the Pentagon and the arms industry is nothing new. That door, however, is moving ever faster with the appointment of Patrick Shanahan, who spent 30 years at Boeing, the Pentagon’s second largest contractor, as the Trump administration’s acting secretary of defense.
Shanahan had previously been deputy secretary of defense, a typical position in recent years for someone with a significant arms industry background. William Lynn, President Obama’s first deputy secretary of defense, had been a Raytheon lobbyist. Ashton Carter, his successor, was a consultant for the same company. One of President George W. Bush’s deputies, Gordon England, had been president of the General Dynamics Fort Worth Aircraft Company (later sold to Lockheed Martin).
But Shanahan is unique. No secretary of defense in recent memory has had such a long career in the arms industry and so little experience in government or the military. For most of that career, in fact, his main focus was winning defense contracts for Boeing, not crafting effective defense policies. While the Pentagon should be focused on protecting the country, the arms industry operates in the pursuit of profit, even when that means selling weapons systems to countries working against American national security interests.
The closest analogues to Shanahan were Charlie Wilson, head of General Motors, whom President Dwight Eisenhower appointed to lead the Department of Defense (DoD) more than 60 years ago, and John F. Kennedy’s first defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who ran the Ford Motor Company before joining the administration. Eisenhower’s choice of Wilson, whose firm manufactured military vehicles, raised concerns at the time about conflicts of interest — but not in Wilson’s mind. He famously claimed that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”
Shanahan’s new role raises questions about whether what is in the best interest of Boeing — bigger defense budgets and giant contracts for unaffordable and ineffective weaponry or aircraft — is what’s in the best interest of the public.
Rampant Conflicts of Interest