WASHINGTON (AP) — Army Secretary Mark Esper, President Donald Trump’s nominee to become secretary of defense, told his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that the United States should pursue diplomatic solutions to its differences with Iran and avoid war.
Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I agree we do not want war with Iran. We are not seeking war with Iran. We need to get back on the diplomatic channel.”
Esper said the administration plans to brief lawmakers soon on a plan for working with other countries to more closely monitor commercial shipping in and around the Persian Gulf . He said this plan, which he called “Operation Sentinel,” is intended to deter Iran from impeding navigation in the Gulf and avoid Iranian miscalculations.
Testifying a day after Trump submitted his nomination to the Senate, Esper faced a mostly friendly series of questions from members of the Armed Services Committee.
The Republican-led Senate is expected to attempt to get Esper confirmed as early as Thursday, ending seven months of leadership uncertainty at the Pentagon. There has been no Senate-confirmed defense secretary since Jim Mattis left last New Year’s Eve.
Mattis quit after a series of policy disputes with Trump, including the president’s announcement in December that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria — a move he never executed.
Several members of the Armed Services Committee raised with Esper their concern that the Pentagon has suffered from a shortage of Senate-confirmed senior officials.
“I am concerned that the defense department is adrift in a way I have not seen in my whole time on Capitol Hill,” said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who has served in the Congress since 1991.
Esper, a former Army officer, said he met with White House officials on Monday to discuss plans to fill open positions, which include the civilian leader of the Air Force. The Air Force has had an acting secretary since Heather Wilson departed in May.
Esper is one of three people who have served as acting defense secretary this year, following Mattis’ departure. The first was Patrick Shanahan, who was never nominated for the position and quit abruptly in June. Esper then took over as the acting secretary.
The moment Esper’s nomination was received by the Senate on Monday, he was required by law to step out of his role as acting defense secretary until he is confirmed as the permanent secretary. He reverted to his previous position of Army secretary.
Filling in for Esper pending his confirmation is Richard V. Spencer, who is now the third acting secretary of defense this year. Spencer has been the civilian leader of the Navy since August 2017, a position he would return to if, as expected, Esper wins Senate confirmation.