Let’s Give Mattis a Break: Service, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

January 30, 2017

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Many observers have been debating the dilemmas of public service in the Trump administration. Last week’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants and refugees from a selection of Muslim-majority countries reenergized this discussion. In War on the Rocks, Ryan Evans noted the dilemma faced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who became a backdrop for a photo opportunity as President Donald Trump signed this executive order. Evans was justifiably appalled at Mattis lending his well-earned credibility to a policy that has more to do with domestic politics than actual national security threats. He concluded, “In other words, Trump will still be Trump. Mattis cannot change that. And he cannot save us. He can only choose to be a part of it. Or not.”

When their very presence in an administration provides top cover for policies they deeply oppose, what are principled public servants to do? Worse, what if they are expected to participate actively in implementing these policies? Evans frames the dilemma well, but how does one go about resolving such questions or, in the extreme case, decide whether to continue serving in an administration one feels is going off the rails?

It’s easy to say before an election that you would never serve in a particular administration.  If the voters call your bluff, you shouldn’t expect the new leadership to have you on speed dial. You’ll likely end up with more time on your hands than you would prefer. Those who join the administration, however, face a different problem.

President Trump has appointed a number of people who have some serious differences with his policies. Of course, given the bizarre nature of some of them (the policies, not necessarily the appointees), it could hardly be otherwise – but I digress. Appointees who have chosen to serve, perhaps because they hope to temper the administration’s more extreme positions, have to face this dilemma.

Reasonable people will differ on what should be done in specific cases, but the late economist Albert O. Hirschman suggested a useful way to think about the general problem. He suggested there are three alternatives when dealing with an organization in difficulty, and they supplied the title of his 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. They are not mutually exclusive and they interact with one another.

In the example at hand, some would urge Secretary Mattis to exit and discourage others from joining an administration they regard as morally and politically tainted. While some may find this sort of absolutism therapeutic, it is not particularly helpful to the country. On the other hand, one should not expect unquestioned loyalty in the face of policies incompatible with one’s own moral or political compasses.

It appears the strategy of voice is already proving useful here, as the president has stated his willingness to defer his opinion on the appropriateness and effectiveness of torture to the more humane views of Secretary Mattis.  More generally, it is imperative that people of the quality of James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly be willing to serve in this administration, especially when it appears that their own views will be attended to. It is not too much to hope that the appointment of responsible moderate people he respects will encourage the better angels of Trump’s nature. It is too early to give up on that hope.

Meanwhile, the United States will survive a few uncomfortable photo opportunities. Adults will understand what is going on in the minds of the appointees, and they should judge them charitably. If things become too bad, the strategy of exit remains, and that possibility may strengthen the impact of their voice.

I am only too aware that hope is not a strategy, but that’s what we’re left with at the moment. Meanwhile, let’s give Secretary Mattis a break.


John Allen Williams, Ph.D. is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Loyola University Chicago. He is a War on the Rocks contributing editor. And he is the person who first introduced Ryan Evans to good whiskey a long time ago.

Image: USGLC

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3 thoughts on “Let’s Give Mattis a Break: Service, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

  1. No one makes General in complete agreement with every superior. I suspect violent disagreement occasionally. Sometimes you salute. Mattis is certainly in a position to not salute if he deems necessary.

    And while the optics could not have been lost on Mattis, I did not find Ryan’s comments critical of Mattis as much as critical of DJT.

  2. If the dilemma is well-framed, then the headline does this article a disservice. The question of how to behave in a difficult situation is certainly not unique to Mattis.Reference

  3. Mattis is in it now. While a firm response is necessary to the missile test, his comments as of this morning ignore the plain and obvious fact that Saudi Arabia, not Iran, is the world leader in exporting terror and planning/ resourcing attacks. Yesterday he warned North Korea that US response would be “effective and overwhelming.” Mattis is not a head in the sand guy- he is willfully turning a blind eye to ISIS as the greatest threat we face, and playing the administration’s shell game. DJT may be upset that HaS is retaking terrain from ISIS, but the next attacker will not be pledging allegiance to the Ayatollah, but rather the Caliphate… and he will have AAA on his iPod, and have one degree of separation or less from the volcano of terror and extremist thought that is the Magic Kingdom of SA.