Mattis is Outstanding, So What’s the Problem?

December 7, 2016

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It is official: Gen. James Mattis, USMC ret., is President-Elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense. Although many national security professionals in the know breathed a sigh of relief, others pulled the alarm on civilian control of the military. It is not good, the argument goes, for general and flag officers to assume the role of civilian leadership when the shine has not yet worn off their stars. But Mattis is so good, others argue. We might have gotten stuck with an ideologue or an outright neophyte. And he even wrote a book on civil-military relations! Surely, one of our most expert warrior-scholars is superior to the other possibilities.

That is probably so. And being a pragmatist, I will stipulate up front that of the names floated for SecDef, I like Mattis the best. He is expert, thoughtful, experienced, tough, smart, and savvy. So, I am not especially worried about how Mattis the man will handle the job. I am far more worried about how the military as an institution will respond and what comes after Mattis.

One of the reasons for the statutory seven-year separation between military retirement and senior civilian appointments is to allow for some meaningful distance between the officer and his or her service. Civilian leaders are meant to operate based on the national interest rather than parochial service interests. Lawmakers were trying to avoid a situation where, say, Army preferences become overall Defense Department preferences, or, for example, budgetary trade-offs favor one form of warfare over another. There is a reason that sub-specialty communities get excited when one of their own ascends to the spot of service chief:  There is expertise and affinity there, not to mention a network of people to whom one owes loyalty and consideration. This is only human, and there is nothing particular about military officers that makes parochialism more likely. The same concern applies for civilian leaders’ relationship with previous employers, a concern that has spawned a series of ethics laws and standards for former lobbyists and defense industry alums in particular.

For the secretary of defense, the principle of reflecting national rather than parochial interests should translate into impartiality between the services. Mattis only retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 which means he is being named four years before the wait time is up. The wars in which he commanded troops are still ongoing. Many of the senior officers he served with are still in leadership positions. His military family is still in the building. Again, many others have argued that Mattis is an independent personality who will not lie prone before quotidian civil-military issues. He will likely use civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to formulate his judgments about the use of force, weapons sales, and force structure decisions. When civilian advisers oppose Central Command proposals or Marine Corps projects, he will probably exercise his famous capacity for getting to the heart of an issue, regardless of whose feathers are ruffled. But the point is not really about Mattis but about the precedent. And even if a Secretary Mattis is able to put some objective distance between himself and his former service, some in the Corps may well feel like they are first among equals. Already, Marine Corps Special Operations Command posted (and then removed) a celebratory ode to “Saint Mattis” on their Facebook page. It’s a silly example, but its implications are serious. Other services might start to consider whether they should grow one of their own to ascend the top post someday. Perhaps, these possibilities are remote. I believe we can trust members of the U.S. military to remain more committed to a professional ethos than most everyone else in Washington. But if political science teaches us anything, it is that institutions will protect their interests. Why wouldn’t we expect the services to seek favor wherever it is available?

This leads to the other, perhaps more important, reason to be concerned about recently-retired general and flag officers running major elements of the government: the politicization of the military. This may happen in two ways. First, the military may begin to become associated with one party over the other, robbing the profession of its historic political impartiality. Trump already claimed during his sit-down with The New York Times that the majority of the military voted for him. Now, by trading on the legitimacy of military officers in senior positions, the president-elect is attempting to align the military as an institution with his own political fortunes. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey warned his fellow four-stars about such a possibility last August, observing that retired officers’ political endorsements are valued because they appear to represent those in uniform as a whole. Writing almost 17 years ago in The Washington Post, Richard Kohn observed:

A politically conscious military appears to be just one more pressure group acting to advance its views and interests, not the neutral institution of the state and the embodiment of the nation.

Even though the vision of widespread military preference for a particular president or party is probably more optical than real, it could still generate unnecessary tension between the services and current members of Congress, not to mention future presidents.

Second, active-duty officers may begin to view political appointments as natural addenda to their careers — rather than the rarity it is now — encouraging partisan ambitions prior to retirement. If this happened, it would seriously undermine civil-military trust by introducing the specter of political competition into the relationship. Promotions and appointments based on political loyalty rather than professional skill could begin to erode “the quality of advice.” Open partisanship could also threaten the cohesion of the force. Precisely because the military is not a monolith, such an eventuality could not only cause divisions between senior military leaders but within the ranks as well.

None of this is or would be nefarious or even intentional. Human beings simply respond to incentives, and military officers in particular respond to the combination of duty, responsibility, and patriotism. If generals like Mattis continue to be, objectively, among the best available (and willing) candidates for civilian leadership positions, they are very likely to take them on for the good of the country they have spent their professional lives protecting. But in the long run, the outcome for both our military and our politics will not be good at all.


Alice Hunt Friend is a Senior Affiliate at the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was previously Special Adviser for Strategy, Plans, and Forces and Principal Director for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views expressed here are her own.

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13 thoughts on “Mattis is Outstanding, So What’s the Problem?

  1. In Denmark where jointness of Armed Forces is taken to a much higher level than in USA we experience that the uniform of the Chief of Defense has none or rather adverse impact on the service he has made his carreer in. To ensure that his integrity cannot be questioned, the Chief of Defense often is more harsh to his own service when it comes to cost-cutting or allocation of ressources . I believe that the same will apply for GN Mattis in his new role as “civilian” Secretary of Defense. It might become a disappointment to the Marine Corps, but USA will still have a secretary of defense in the same League as GN Marshall.

  2. Meh … much ado over nothing at all. The statute setting 7 years as the minimum interegnum is dumb.

    After all, if American voters, our institutions, and our Constitution are just fine with a general taking off his uniform and ascending to the Presidency, why is there any more concern over a Presidential appointee doing the same? There should not be. It’s all about what hat one is wearing.

    Just like flag officers routinely assume new roles and responsibilities when they go from a given branch command to a unified theater command, and to command of allied forces, this is no different.

    Mattis appears to be about as good a candidate for SecDef as can found. Mattis IS a civilian, and he reports to the CinC, just like every other SecDef.

    Move on.

  3. “Human beings respond to incentives, and military officers in particular respond to the combination of duty, responsibility, and patriotism.” The incentive of senior gov’t service may possibly impact civ-mil relations as theorized. But the cure is a sense of “duty, responsibility, and patriotism.” We would do well to accept the risk of appointing senior gov’t officials with these three traits, regardless of military service.

  4. Funny….if a civilian who served his entire live at the state department would secure the job as a secretary of state…nobody would blink an eye. But in Mattis casé it suddenly becomes a problem. That is called Unconscious Bias!!! I know, it’s only bad when men in charge have it towards women and minorities, but the left-leaning scholars should get a grip….having a Secretary of Defense who deeply cares for his soldiers is much better then one who deeply cares about his political career and wants to please his political master!!!

  5. When one of the two political parties in this country has significant and influential elements that openly despise the military and senior elected officials from that party care so little about the military they routinely mispronounce basic terms like “corpsman”, than its really no surprise why servicemembers overwhelmingly vote for the other party.

    To the other point, President Obama’s first VA Secretary was GEN Eric Shinseki, his first Director of National Intelligence was ADM Dennis Blair, his first National Security Advisor was GEN Jim Jones, and his first CIA Director was GEN Michael Hayden, who was followed a few years later by GEN David Petraeus. So while all the fuss about the retired flag officers in the Trump administration?

    1. Hey John. I think military personnel are just as vulnerable to someone like the president elect,
      who so far has pushed just about every button he can in the average American’s psyche to paint himself as the best candidate. In some ways, I think he was. In others probably not.
      We’ll just have to see. As to your trying to characterize an entire political party as hostile or uncaring about service members, perhaps not. Most of my Marines did not vote for Trump, believe me. And that’s because the social demographic they come from has little to gain from the GOP, and they know it all to well. The sound bites are great , but the reality is the Republican party is for the priveliged. I hope your kids don’t have to go to a public school or don’t have the wrong color skin. And thanks but our “doc’s” were all ways treated well in my rifle companies. Maybe its time to stop being bitter about serving your country. If its that annoying, its probably time to look at your values and reasons for serving.

  6. “It is not good, the argument goes, for general and flag officers to assume the role of civilian leadership when the shine has not yet worn off their stars”

    Yeah. That worked so poorly for General Dwight D. Eisenhower….

    1. Digit: People often use Ike as their counter-argument here, but I think we can all agree (hopefully) that a retired GO/FO running for elected office is inherently different from a retired GO/FO becoming a political appointee, especially when that appointee would be running the Defense Department. But while I understand this argument and think it is a reasonable one, I am not personally concerned about Mattis as SECDEF for civil-military reasons. I think he would/will be great at it. My big concern is Trump and Co. (Bannon, Conway, Flynn) will use Mattis’ sterling reputation as political cover to advance some truly deleterious policies at home and abroad and that Mattis might not be able to do anything about it. I hope I am wrong. I have tremendous admiration for Mattis.

      1. Ryan – I understand your concern, but by stating it as you do in your comment, you’re essentially calling into question the integrity and honesty of Mr. Mattis. What is it in his history and performance that gives you reason to believe he would allow himself to be used as political cover for policies that he is otherwise opposed to?

        I don’t personally know the man so I can’t say it’s absolutely not in his character to be such a dishonest and unethical leader. But I don’t see it from all that I have read.

        On the other hand, I can easily see Trump’s national security advisor not only covering for Trump’s il-advised policies, but actually helping him to formulate them.

        Moral of the story – uniforms currently or formerly worn don’t make the man or the woman. It’s in their character, whatever it is, that makes them behave as they do.