By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Patrick Shanahan was thrust into the spotlight during his debut as acting U.S. defence secretary on Wednesday, sitting next to President Donald Trump as he publicly disparaged Shanahan's predecessor, lampooned the war in Afghanistan and called Syria a land of "sand" and "death."
The former Boeing executive officially took office during the New Year's holiday on Tuesday, issuing a statement saying that he looked "forward to working with President Trump to carry out his vision."
Trump's vision for the second half of his four-year term in office came into view on Wednesday as he spoke exhaustively during a cabinet meeting about America's wars, and his displeasure with them. Shanahan sat silently at Trump's side, often expressionless, as television cameras rolled.
Trump suggested that former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis - who abruptly resigned last month over policy differences with Trump - had been essentially fired and that Mattis had failed in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents are becoming increasingly confident of ending the 17-year-old war on terms favourable to them.
"I'm not happy with what he's done in Afghanistan and I shouldn't be happy," Trump said.
The remarks put Shanahan in a difficult position from the start of what could be a long tenure at the Pentagon, where many staff were loyal to Mattis. Trump has suggested Shanahan could be acting as defence secretary for an extended period of time. Several candidates previously seen as potential successors to Mattis have recently indicated they don't want the job.
Mattis' public resignation could also make Senate confirmation perilous for any hand-picked successor. Mattis implicitly criticized Trump in his resignation letter for failing to value allies who fight alongside the United States, including in places like Syria.
Even Shanahan had been handpicked by Mattis for the job and held him in high regard, officials say. As deputy, he often had to fill in for Mattis in meetings, including with members of the cabinet.
One reason Mattis resigned was Trump's surprise decision to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Although Trump has declared victory there, critics warn Islamic State still has a toehold in Syria and could stage a comeback if U.S. forces depart.
Trump said during the cabinet meeting that Islamic State militants should be combated by nations in the region, including U.S. adversary Iran.
"It's sand and it's death," he said.
Shanahan has yet to detail his thoughts on the way forward in Syria, where the Pentagon is planning a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops over the coming months.
He has also not comment on planning for a dramatic drawdown in Afghanistan.
CHINA, CHINA, CHINA
In one of his first meetings of the day, Shanahan told civilian leaders of the U.S. military to focus on "China, China, China," even as America fights militants in Syria and Afghanistan, a U.S. defence official said.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on Shanahan's views on China or what other guidance he gave during the meeting.
Other officials have described Shanahan as an advocate of the Pentagon's toughening stance towards Beijing. The 2018 National Defence Strategy, which Shanahan helped develop, branded China as a strategic competitor.
"While we're focussed on ongoing operations, acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember China, China, China," the official said.
Relations between the world’s two largest economies have plumbed new depths under Trump, with a trade war and disagreements over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Shanahan, best known for his focus on internal Pentagon reform and his private-sector experience, had spent three decades at Boeing and was general manager for the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet before he joined the Pentagon last year.
During Shanahan's tense Senate confirmation hearing, the committee's then-chairman, John McCain, voiced deep concern about giving the deputy job to an executive from one of the five corporations accounting for the lion's share of U.S. defence spending.
"I have to have confidence that the fox is not going to be put back into the henhouse," said McCain, who died in August.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)