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

November 25, 2016

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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

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28 thoughts on “I Love Mattis, But I Don’t Love Him as SecDef

  1. “He is a leader with strategic sense and strong knowledge of history.” “He is not a wonk.”

    There’s a logical contradiction in those two sentences.

    Overall, flimsy arguments. By the logic presented here, Eisenhower wasn’t fit to be President.

    1. Indeed. The author would no doubt have been appalled at General Dwight Eisenhower retiring as SACEUR commander in the Spring of 1952 to become President in January 1953. Yet he was the one who warned us about possible pernicious effects of the military-industrial complex.

      This Article appears to use the most superficial possible of devices to attempt to disguise a dislike for the man that is emotionally – and not logically – based.

      To put it more bluntly, it sounds as if the author has a personal problem. She’s entitled to that, of course, but she needn’t try to inflict it upon the rest of us.

  2. Dear Erin,
    Reading your article with great interest and discerned three miscalculations. Most hardened military personnel could relate these miscalculations.
    1. Everyone adapts to SECDEF Mattis, general officers included. In Mattis’ case, that adaptation will be a welcome development. The useless, meandering bullshit pickle barrel ideals will vanish. Instantly. This is war 24/7.
    2. Serving President Trump will be neither frustrating or degrading, I assure you. By hiring former generals whom Obama actually did frustrate and degrade, Trump’s tone is clear. You and your minority may remain tone deaf as is your choice, but the military will not be and Trump’s approval rating has skyrocketed in the armed services.
    3. The ROE have changed and EVERYONE, including Iran, knows it. Want to hold our sailors? Your boats will be toothpicks and your planes will be a ball of flame hurtling towards earth.
    Iran knows this, why don’t you?

    SW Elam

  3. The major problem with the author’s argument is that it assumes there is a better option. The reasons the author provides for not selecting Mattis are irrelevant if the alternatives to Mattis are less prepared for the job. Im not sure how the author’s argument can be made without even mentioning better alternatives.

  4. On the contrary, my reading was that she deeply admired him.
    In the role that fit him she acknowledges he was outstanding and inspiring.
    She fails to bring to the fore the counter-examples of putting an effective military leader into an office essentially political; Grant and Jackson come to mind.

  5. The arguments presented would have more merit if an alternative appointee were discussed. If not General Mattis then who? The only hope the republic has is if our President elect recognizes his limitations and listens to those more qualified in foreign affairs.

  6. Of the author’s three main points, the first is valid. The second about his ability to lead a bureaucracy is not backed up with any evidence, and dismissive of his experience successfully managing large DOD-organizations in the past (e.g., JFCOM, CENTCOM, etc.). The third point is an ad hominem attack on the president-elect, and arguably could be an issue for anyone entering the post.

    So, who would the author nominate as the next SECDEF?

    1. I’m inclined to agree that the first and third points can be dismissed as rather conclusive, but the second, I think, merits some discussion.

      We could speak generally of Flag Officers in bureaucratic roles. Plainly, they tend to be highly qualified for them (Mattis doubly so, because of his strategic insight and intuition) , but if the eminently brilliant Kurt von Hammerstein was any indicator, they tend to loathe boring busy body work. And for all intents and purposes (barring the comparably few strategic and even fewer operational decisions SecDef gets to make), the job is almost all busy work, not terribly “meaningful” busy work nonetheless.
      *As my name suggests, I’m not incredibly familiar with the tasks SecDef carries out, so I’d invite further elaboration on what he does or will do.*

      While we could certainly guilt trip Mattis into being SecDef based off of a desire to fulfill his duty, I certainly wouldn’t want to bore him to tears.

      Personally I’d suggest Eric Fanning, he seems to love his job, and it’s just a tier below SecDef already. He also isn’t exactly flamboyant about his political affiliation, and Trump doesn’t seem to mind the sexual preferences of his underlings.

  7. The author wrote: “Mattis has shown little patience for management and administration.”

    How wrong you are. In fact he has shown just the opposite at the helm and CENTCOM and the God-Forsaken JFCOM.

    I think the author doesn’t know as much about Jim Mattis as implied.

    Frankly I’d prefer him as Secretary of State, he’s quite good at diplomacy, even if it’s not his first choice. He’s culturally astute unlike that sledge hammer Guilani, unenlightened Romney and woefully inexperienced Gabbard.

  8. Great article Erin, well written contrarian view.

    Another point not getting much discussion is the close relationship between potential-SECDEF Mattis and Gen Dunford. The pro’s and con’s of that merit discussion.

  9. As a former CEO, Erin may know bureaucracy, but then, so does Mattis ( and the military is a very structured bureaucracy). Erin may (or may not) know how to exercise leadership (which is far more than being a commander, an order giver). Mattis does.

    Nor would Mattis be distracted by the petty details of bureaucracy. He knows how to delegate authority, focusing on the mission. His subordinates respect him and want to follow him, at the same time that he gives them the confidence to be innovative and creative. He not only listens, but solicits input from subordinates.

    A combat leader like Mattis knows that the plan goes out the window when the first shots are fired. It won’t be a matter of “this is the way it’s always been done”. The author may have served, but not as a combat chess master who also knows when to dump the board.

    Trump’s perceived arrogance is more likely the self confidence that comes from success. His business record shows that he knows how to pick good subordinates, giving them the authority to go with their assigned responsibilities, and then backing them. We need leaders like Trump, like Mattis, who put their money where their mouth is. Confusion to our enemies!

  10. Does Mattis have the patience to deal with Congress?

    Far more disconcerting though is (if true) Flynn’s attitude about not having anyone in the Cabinet who outranked him.

    The Advisor is not someone in the chain of command, nor someone who undergoes confirmation. I hope he doesn’t let his head swell thinking that someone like SecDef would answer to him.

  11. Petraeus for SECDEF Mattis for National Security Advisor. Petraeus is better dealing with the White House and Congress. Mattis is the one you want advising on how to lead the Charge when the trumpet sounds.

  12. The era of running the DoD like a fortune 500 company would be over with Mattis as SecDef. As you so eloquently pointed out, he’s a war fighter and a strategically thinking leader of war fighters. And wouldn’t you know it? The DoD is in the business of war! The gall of putting such a man at its helm huh?

  13. As far as General Mattis’ belief in our commitment to Israel is concerned, not only has he criticized Israel as an emerging “apartheid” state, but he has also criticized the American “bias” in favor of Israel over the Arabs. He made that statement at the Aspen Institute in 2013. If you believe that our commitment to Israel is fundamental, then you must insist that President-Elect Trump drop General Mattis from his SecDef candidates list

  14. Rock chalk. An article like this was bound to provoke a lot of negative comments.

    It was nice to see a discussion of the prohibition on recent military members serving as secdef that wasn’t just on how to get around the ban. There hasn’t even been the pretense of considering why the law was put in place originally.

  15. Erin,

    Although you possess credentials for academia, you were never a US Marine. Therefore, you do not understand the capabilities of a US Marine to serve the United States, both active or retired. To lead the DoD, we need warfighters that understand war. Not wonks that like to believe they understand the complexities of projecting military power. No other US Citizen is more qualified than General (retired) Mattis.

    Colonel USMC (retired)
    Graduate: USMC Command & Staff College, Marine Corps War College, Joint Forces Staff College.

    1. Wade:

      Is your argument really that only those who have served in the U.S. Marine Corps can make the judgment on whether Mattis should serve as SecDef? I love the Marine Corps, but that argument simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

  16. I don’t understand the “bureaucrat” argument. Being a bureaucrat is not a good thing; the Pentagon being bureaucratic is not a good thing.

    To qualify for a terribly ran organization, do you have to be a terrible leader?

    I’ve found that there aren’t types, flavors, forms, varieties, etc… of leadership; its a trait that, if sound, can be applied to any scenario and leveraged in any environment; its universal.

    I agree, General Mattis will not be good for the Pentagon. He will be good for the military.

  17. “He is a well-regarded leader who inspires fierce loyalty.”

    “Mattis is…a deeply thoughtful and capable person committed to his fellow warfighters and to our nation’s interests.”

    If only more of our leaders were able to demonstrate these qualities…

    But to be honest, I was excited to dive into this piece and find a thoughtful argument against Mattis taking the helm at the Pentagon…until I got to the 3 reasons, the last of which has nothing to do with the quality of the prospective SECDEF. It seems the author may have missed Trump’s statements after meeting with Mattis last week…he seemed very considerate of Mad Dog’s views.

    This seems more like an attempt at indirect debasing of the Donald rather than a heartfelt argument against Mattis (see final 2 paragraphs).

  18. Actually, the war fighter is the Chairman of the JCS, while the SecDef provides support. The SecDef plans support 5,10 and 15 years out and provides for the funding, manpower and readiness of the armed forces. The SecDef provides advice to the CINC but the CINC directs the CJCS in war preparation and operations.

  19. This opinion piece illustrates why I am skeptical about WOTR publications. The author poses poor arguments with zero evidence. Simple acedemic standards, make an argument and back it up with verifiable facts. The three reasons she gives for why the General would make a poor SECDEF are the closest statements I can find to evidence but they are weak at best, using hasty genrealizations. “Warfighters rarely make good bureaucrats” and that “the president elect won’t listen”….huge generalizations again with zero evidence to support these claims. Sorry I just don’t see why war on the rocks would post this oped. This forum should lead the discussion using fact based writing, that is valuable to the greater intellectual conversation about war/defense.

  20. “Overall, flimsy arguments. By the logic presented here, Eisenhower wasn’t fit to be President.”
    That doesn’t make any sense. Eisenhower ran as a politician and candidate, and won. Mattis is a selection of the president-elect, and is an appointee, subject to Congress’s approval. He may or not be suited to the position. We’ll see, or not.