Trump left a key position unfilled — and it may explain mistakes in the Suleimani assassination
President Donald J. Trump arrives at the Memorial Amphitheater during the 149th annual Department of Defense (DoD) National Memorial Day Observance. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

President Donald Trump's failure to fill a key position at the Pentagon may explain some of the criticism the administration is receiving following the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani.


While Trump often brags about his success in filling judicial vacancies, the president has failed to fill key vacancies in the executive branch -- a problem compounded by the high rate of people leaving government during his presidency.

One key vacancy is in the spotlight following the assassination.

Luke Hartig, the former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC), explained the situation in an analysis published by Just Security.

"In killing Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. military has just conducted one of its most important and consequential special operations missions ever. And it has done so without a crucial player – the Pentagon’s civilian chief of special operations," Hartig explained. "Much has been said about the Trump administration’s failure to fill several key Senate-confirmed positions, but today, perhaps none of these is more significant than the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC)."

The position has been vacant since Owen West resigned in June. Mark Mitchell, who had been West's principal deputy, left in October.

Hartig, who worked in SO/LIC for five years, detailed the importance of the position.

"Why should we care, you might ask. The mission appears to have been well-executed and successful even without a civilian overseer. What could a civilian possibly bring to the table that our highly professional special operators lack? The short answer is that the ASD SO/LIC combines expertise in operational oversight with foreign policy judgement to ensure that our operations are conducted as prudently as possible," he explained. "This is essential because special operations almost always have strategic and political ramifications that go beyond the military’s execution of them."

"In an operation like this one, the ASD SO/LIC would be a critical voice in vetting the proposed mission and advising the Secretary of Defense and the White House on its risks and rewards. The assistant secretary would provide a check on those within the military who might be overly focused on the operational upside and largely neglect the broader foreign policy fallout and risks. This is a high-stakes task that requires an experienced professional who is ready for the pushback that comes from asking hard questions about the military’s plans," he noted.

The administration has been slammed for how people were informed of the raid.

"Beyond these operationally-focused duties, the ASD SO/LIC would be particularly attuned to ensuring appropriate congressional oversight of operations. This is particularly notable since several key members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), appear to have learned of the operation only after the fact, even while other members, notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), were notified in advance," Hartig explained. "It’s also not clear whether Congress has been offered a legal justification for the operation, a critical component of congressional notification."