I Love Mattis, But I Don’t Love Him as SecDef


Among those in the Marine Corps I taught and deployed with, Gen. (ret.) Jim Mattis is a legend. The quotes, the foxholes, the knife hands. Everyone has their favorite story. I once handed Mattis a Diet Coke out of a cooler at Quantico. A mundane act? Yes. But I’ve remembered it fondly for 12 years.

He is Chaos, Mad Dog, and the warrior monk. But we should not add secretary of defense to that list.

I have long thought of Mattis as a “break glass in case of emergency” type of leader. He was uniquely suited to his roles in the early years of the War on Terror. He is a warrior and a leader of men in the application of violence. He is not, however, a man for all seasons. Many in defense circles have been so overjoyed at the prospect of a qualified secretary, that they seemed to have forgotten to stop and ask if Mattis would, in fact, be right for the job. He is not a politician, or a wonk, or a bureaucrat. To ask him to be any of those things would be like trying to keep a wave upon the sand.

As with all nominees, there are tradeoffs to Mattis running the Defense Department. He is a strategic thinker with a strong sense of history — his library is one of those aforementioned legends. He is a well-regarded leader who inspires fierce loyalty. But I fear Mattis may be wasted atop the vast expanse of the Pentagon. There are ultimately three primary reasons why we shouldn’t hope Chaos becomes secretary of defense.

1. Mattis a recently retired general and is therefore statutorily prohibited from serving as secretary of defense. And while a legislative solution is possible, this law exists for good reasons and overriding it bodes poorly for long-term civil-military relations.

2. Warfighters rarely make good bureaucrats. The Pentagon is one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, and Mattis has shown little patience for management and administration.

3. His boss won’t listen.

We should not dismiss these tradeoffs. They require serious thought, and I don’t expect everyone will conclude as I do. An ideal secretary of defense would have many qualities: strategic thinking, effective leadership, knowledge of the personnel and procurement systems, experience with the interagency, commitment to the warfighters, and steely loyalty to civilian control. It is unlikely we will find all those features in one nominee. But we should be clear-eyed about what Mattis would and would not bring to the office.

Given President-elect Donald Trump’s comments regarding general officers during the campaign, some turbulence in civil-military relations is to be expected in the coming administration. And while the president is the commander-in-chief, the chain of command passes through the secretary of defense. Civilian control of the military remains one of the hallmarks of the American political system, alongside the rule of law and separation of church and state. I have no doubt that Mattis, who recently co-edited a book on civil-military relations, believes that more strongly than most. The secretary of defense is the embodiment of civilian control. But having only recently retired, he cannot shoulder that burden on his own.

Nor should he share in this burden with the half-dozen or so former generals Trump is considering for other posts. The president-elect’s newfound love of general officers — without knowing much about the culture and traditions that animate them — should raise concerns. (His apparent courting of officers fired or driven out by President Obama is also troubling.) Indeed, if Mattis were the only general under consideration, the tradeoffs might appear different. But in this context, civilian control of the military must stand on firmer ground.

Some may feel more comfortable than I with a former general as secretary of defense. Indeed, much of #NatSec twitter was warm to the idea. Mattis is, after all a deeply thoughtful and capable person committed to his fellow warfighters and to our nation’s interests. But this brings us to my second point: Warriors make for bad bureaucrats. Rather few officers have shown success on the battlefield and in the hallways of official Washington. Gen. Al Gray comes to mind, as does Gen. David Petraeus (though his combat command came late in his career). And the last general to serve as defense secretary, Gen. George Marshall, was a staff officer. It was his experience as Army Chief of Staff during World War II that qualified him to be secretary of defense, after serving as secretary of state. Mattis’ record as a combat commander is unsurpassed, but he has never shown much interest in the staff assignments. He did serve a tour in Washington in the late 1990s (as military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense), but unlike other four-stars, Mattis never seemed particularly interested in coming back. And while his tours at Central Command and the now-defunct Joint Forces Command are to his credit, they also reveal the limits of his skills at bureaucratic infighting, given he was driven out from the former post after a falling out with the Obama administration on its Iran policy.

The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.

And yet, there are many who would argue that this is a time in which those traits are most needed at the Pentagon. In a discussion on Twitter earlier this week, former marine Paul Szoldra noted that “the best thing about him, and what would be desperately needed in Trump admin, is that he isn’t a yes man.” I don’t disagree, but would Trump even listen? His Mattis-inspired about-face on waterboarding notwithstanding, I’m not convinced the president-elect will be able to manage a coterie of competing advisors, much less listen to them. Indeed, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Flynn, soon be national security advisor, has apparently indicated he doesn’t want anyone who outranked him serving in the administration. What will Trump’s position on any number of crucial national security issues be tomorrow or next year? Can he be persuaded to change his view of Russia or better reassure allies in Europe and Asia? Would he accept Mattis’ view of Iran?

If Mattis were indeed asked to be secretary of defense, his decision would in some way mirror those of many more junior officials. Must all good people serve? Ben Wittes has written usefully on the distinction between those civil servants already in government, and those appointees contemplating joining. The full-throated support required of political appointees in an administration should provide more than a moment’s pause. By serving, can you better protect American values and interests? Would you or Mattis be able to shape policy and effectively advise the president? Or would you be complicit in the debasing of our alliances and institutions? How would you decide when enough was enough? And if you were Mattis, would your resignation trigger its own civil-military crisis?

These thoughts have tumbled around my head many times since the election was decided. There is no doubt this administration, like all administrations, needs good people in office. But to serve this president will be a frustrating and degrading affair. For my peers and those slightly older, I have few good answers. The arguments for joining the administration — even under immiserating conditions — are profound, but so are those against. But for Gen. Jim Mattis, my conscience is clear. We need a capable civilian as secretary of defense now more than ever. Despite the tradeoffs, he should say no.


Erin Simpson, Ph.D., is the newest War on the Rocks senior editor. She was the CEO of Caerus Associates.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps