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Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, (General, USMC, Retired): Can He Be A Civilian Leader?
David S. Maxwell
Because I do not have Erin Simpson’s experience with General Mattis, I am not as qualified to comment as she is on whether he should or should not be named as the next Secretary of Defense. I only know him through reputation, recent histories of the war on terrorism, and the many stories and anecdotes from those who have served with him. I heard him speak at a single conference where he lamented the dearth of strategic thinking in the US military and our national security apparatus. This comment has remained on my mind ever since I have heard it and I repeat it often to students to challenge them to prove General Mattis wrong. But that is the extent of my experience with him.
Dr. Simpson makes some excellent arguments as to why he should not be nominated and if appointed why he should decline. Of all her excellent arguments there is one that I must take exception to and I ask this question: If a President Trump will not listen to General Mattis to whom will he listen?
Given the assessments of the President-elect, if accurate, (and the truth is we have no idea what he is really like, how he will govern, and how he will lead when he takes office) I wonder if General Mattis is not our last best hope to bring measured leadership and strategic thinking to the national security apparatus of the new administration? If that is the case then I hope that General Mattis will do as those who are committed to supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States would: If asked, serve.
We should also question some of the arguments against having General Mattis or any former general officer serve as Secretary of Defense. We should cast out two myths – one is that a general is pre-disposed to the use of the military instrument of power as a first choice and the other is that a general, having seen the costs of war, is less likely to use the military instrument of power. Generals are no more or less likely to follow either course of action as any other competent strategic thinker, either civilian or military. They are neither warmongers nor peaceniks. It does a disservice to “generalize” about the mindset of former general officers. To take such an argument to absurdity, perhaps we should not allow lawyers to become judges. We should never allow those who have served at the highest levels of the Justice Department to become Supreme Court Justices. Should we disqualify a general officer who possesses the intellect, leadership ability, and experience to continue to serve at the highest levels of defense and national security simply because he was a general officer?
Our Congress must have had reason to enact a prohibition against any active duty commissioned officer (not just a general officer) from becoming Secretary of Defense for seven years after the officer left active service. As we know General George Marshall was named Secretary of Defense and served in that capacity for a short time under President Truman (and at the time the prohibition was ten years). Perhaps it was for reasons of civilian control of the military (which I will address subsequently) or that for some reason a retired general officer might be too close to current serving officers and thus there could be perceptions of conflicts of interest or favoritism. A study as to why this prohibition was enacted would be probably be a good research paper for a graduate student in security studies or a law student studying national security law. However, the important question is why Congress did not completely ban all former active duty officers from ever serving as Secretary of Defense and why they reduced the restriction from ten years to seven years? Perhaps it is because there are Congressmen who recognize that former general officers can make important contributions and may have the requisite skills and experience to serve in that capacity (though of course some may not). If they are allowed to serve after seven years, why not after five years, especially if a general is of extraordinary character and caliber?
The most important argument against General Mattis serving as Secretary of Defense is likely the perception of civilian control of the military, which is one of our most cherished principles of government. Although it is true that a retired commissioned officer can be recalled to active duty for continued uniformed military service, the fact is that if he is not recalled, he is a civilian. And if one were to serve as Secretary he would be serving in a civilian capacity and not a military one. But this begs the question of what does civilian control of the military mean? How is it defined?
In order to understand civilian control of the military we must simply read and understand our Constitution. We have a civilian Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and our civilian legislature has the power to raise and support armies, maintain a navy and declare war (and thus fund such a war) among other duties surrounding national security. Nowhere in the Constitution does it require that there be a Secretary of Defense (or War) who did not serve in uniform. Having General Mattis serve as Secretary of Defense in no way threatens the principle of civilian control of the military. He must and will answer to the President and Congress, our civilian leadership.
Beyond civilian control of the military there is the concern of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. This criticism has existed for at least the past fifteen years and most of the Secretaries have been civilians with relatively junior level military experience from decades prior to their service as Secretaries. It could be argued that if all of the rumored general officers are given positions in the administration (e.g., General Petraeus as Secretary of State, General Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security and General Flynn who has already been chosen for National Security Advisor) that military experience and the military perspective will dominate the foreign policy and national security structure. That may be a valid argument broadly, but not one to be used specifically against General Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Perhaps the focus of protest should be on the other positions.
Furthermore, General Mattis knows and cherishes the Constitution much more than most Americans. A general officer (or any commissioned or noncommissioned officer, and soldier, sailor, airmen, and Marine for that matter) takes the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And they take this oath seriously. They are not about to undermine the principles of the Constitution of our federal democratic republic.
Ultimately it all comes down to this question: who is the best person to serve as Secretary of Defense? If the President–elect believes it is General James N. Mattis and the Senate gives its advice and consent (and authorizes a waiver to the seven year restriction) then just as we are bound to support the office of the President despite who we wanted to win the election, we should support the President-elect’s choice for Secretary of Defense.