For an Audience of One: Re-Booting Agenda SecDef


Editor’s Note: We are pleased to re-boot “Agenda SecDef,” a column designed for an audience of one — the secretary of defense — to War on the Rocks.

Multiple authors will be contributing to this series. Shawn Brimley is executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He worked at the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff during the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency. Dr. Mara Karlin recently departed the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. In June, she will join Johns Hopkins University-SAIS as associate professor of practice and associate director of strategic studies. Loren Schulman is the Leon Panetta Senior Fellow at CNAS, a Pentagon alumnus, former senior adviser to former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and, most importantly, co-host of “Bombshell,” a War on the Rocks podcast. Between the three of them and their broader network inside and outside the U.S. government, they have their fingers on the pulse of the policies and programs inside the Pentagon, the debates between and among the military services, the combatant commands, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the sort of advice the secretary is and is not receiving from his building, and the implications for broader decision-making at the White House, Capitol Hill and around the world. We are happy to have them and look forward to the discussion.   

Since Jim Mattis accepted the role of secretary of defense, his proverbial rucksack has been loaded up with expectations: convincing President Trump that torture is not effective, defending American internationalism, keeping America’s alliances alive, saving the U.S. foreign aid budget and being the “adult in the room” on the National Security Council.  These expectations are absurd and far beyond the writ of any normal secretary of defense. The policy, programming, personnel, process and unknown contingencies will be individually challenging. Managed together, they are staggering—even for someone whose call-sign was once “Chaos.”

Starting with policy, Mattis must oversee major operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, and counterterrorism operations around the world. He is also responsible for positioning the Pentagon to respond adequately to Russia’s destabilizing activities against key European allies and partners and China’s increasingly assertive behavior across the Asia-Pacific, as well as contend with conventional and strategic challenges from less predictable regional spoilers like North Korea and Iran.

There are good and pressing reasons to enhance U.S. military posture in Europe, where Russia is moving quickly to consolidate control of Crimean and Eastern Ukraine, threaten its neighbors, undermine NATO and erode the democratic institutions of the broader West, to include the United States. To be sure, a more assertive military posture must be part of a whole-of-government response. In Asia, China is asserting greater influence over its neighborhood and will no doubt continue to use its military investments and posture to chip away at U.S. freedom of military action and maneuver. In the Gulf, the three-pronged challenge of destroying the Islamic State, countering Iran’s destabilizing activities, and determining the future of U.S. policy toward the Assad regime. And finally, America’s longest war — Afghanistan — continues to simmer, with U.S. commanders requesting troops increases to support the security assistance and counterterrorism missions there.

While confronting policy choices in this complex security environment, Mattis is navigating the Pentagon through rough and still uncertain waters. Even with a Republican-controlled Congress and a White House seeking a substantial defense build-up, finding a viable political path to relief from budget caps in the Budget Control Act of 2011, or accepting cuts to other agencies beyond the Department of Defense as offsets to defense spending increases, within the caps, is no sure thing. Mattis has already witnessed how hard this road will be to travel. The Trump administration previewed its proposal to increase defense spending to $603 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, representing a 3 percent increase from the Obama team’s plan, to rounds of criticism from Democrats and Republicans, and defense hawks and deficit hawks. For example, the defense budget guidance was panned by Sen. John McCain, who, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had recently issued his own $640 billion defense plan, saying “We can and must do better.” This sentiment was echoed by Rep. Mac Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. But if past is prologue, it is hard to imagine appropriators supporting the levels of funding advocated by the defense authorizing committees, and Senate Democrats (and many Republicans) will reject deep cuts in non-defense discretionary accounts to pay for significant increases in the defense budget. Given the initial reception on Capitol Hill, the lack of coordination across the executive branch, and the requirement to substantially cut key non-defense discretionary accounts to reach this target absent a broader budget agreement, it is doubtful the budget will pass in its current form.

Oh, and we have not discussed Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds yet, the separate pot of money exempt from legislated caps established to (primarily) fund near-term challenges and operations overseas., Despite this intent, the Pentagon readily acknowledges that OCO still contains between $25 and $30 billion of programs that have little to do with current operations – an unsustainable budget sleight of hand should OCO ever be phased out.  Mattis and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney must also confront whether and, if so, how to navigate these activities back into the base budget over time. All of this is to say that the road to stable, larger budgets for the Department of Defense that address near-term readiness challenges, build up capacity where appropriate, and lay the foundation for future conventional and strategic modernization will be bumpy, and will likely contain several exits to more continuing resolutions and potentially a government shutdown. The debate about the FY17 supplemental will be the first test of many of these dynamics, and will foreshadow the landscape over which debates about a significant increase in FY18 defense base budget will play out (or stall).

Beyond the budget process (which we know filled you with optimism), Mattis’ job is made harder still because the Pentagon currently does not a single Senate-confirmed defense appointee under consideration before the Senate Armed Services Committee, although a handful of important “intent to nominate” announcements were made last week. The administration also has yet to hire any key non-confirmable positions like the deputy assistant secretaries of defense —arguably the critical layer where political appointments are needed to move the bureaucracy and adequately staff the secretary’s engagements in Washington and around the world. This fact, combined with the Trump administration’s hiring freeze affecting the vast majority of Pentagon civilian billets, means the nation’s defense enterprise is starved both of civilian leadership from above and new talent from below. To be successful in addressing the policy and budget challenges in front of us, Mattis must continue to place the highest priority on reversing this trend.

Despite this handicap, Mattis should ensure that the president benefits from a disciplined decision-making process that enhances the chances that good, risk-informed decisions are made. An effective process helps military commanders understand their president’s strategic intent and the subsequent boundaries imposed on their concepts of operation. Ultimately, it gives American men and women in uniform the confidence that the actions they take and the risk they incur are guided by serious deliberation at the highest levels of government. Unfortunately, early indications are that Trump and his national security decision-making process are nowhere near as disciplined as they need to be to serve him and the national interest well. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s leadership at the National Security Council will hopefully help impose some greater rigor, although, in the end, every president has employed the process that reflects his preferences. In our experiences, both in the Pentagon and in the White House, a very deliberative process (“measure twice, cut once”) that considers all elements of national security when debating the use of military force ought to be the standard. The men and women in harm’s way deserve no less, and Mattis and McMaster should take care in setting precedents for this administration.

Disciplined decision-making will be required not only for ongoing operations, but also for important strategic decisions. Even with potentially significant increases to the defense budget, America’s military needs substantially exceed what can be resourced at any given time. As every secretary of defense comes to understand, strategy is the art of achieving “good enough” today, without compromising the ability to get to “good enough” tomorrow. These tensions will play out with respect to balancing where in the world to deploy permanent and rotating U.S. military forces and when to do so relative to other needs. Mattis will need to develop a trusted team, a transparent process and a willingness to consider difficulty tradeoffs to enable candid scrutiny of his decisions in this space to hold true to this balance.

The list of urgent items in Mattis’ inbox is already large and growing. Yet in order to leave an enduring imprint on the Pentagon, Mattis must also ensure that his priorities and his actions are guided by an overarching strategy. Beyond being a “good steward,” what does Mattis want to get done during his tenure? What are his major priorities? Does he want to fully resource today’s military readiness needs and inevitably assume greater risk in modernizing U.S. forces for future challenges? Does he accept the predictable arguments of each military service to increase their size in terms of people and military platforms? Is he willing to assert strong and needed control over the military’s modernization priorities and practices? How much is enough? Where is he willing to accept and manage risk, and how will he build and empower a team that can help him assess how best to do so?

These and other critical questions will come to define Mattis’ tenure at the Pentagon. Beyond just a handful of other cabinet appointees, and a skeleton crew of well-respected Obama appointees (mostly apolitical technocrats) and career civil servants, Mattis is bearing the extraordinary burden of exercising civilian oversight of a vast bureaucracy, ongoing operations, and an inconsistent — and often personal — White House decision-making process.

We are re-booting “Agenda SecDef” with a clear of purpose in mind — to provide Secretary Mattis with what we believe are good, durable ideas that can help steer the Pentagon through the many complex waters he must navigate. We intend to marshal others as occasional contributors to these columns and we hope readers of War on the Rocks will help us along the way as well.


Shawn Brimley, Mara Karlin, Loren DeJonge Schulman are the very same people who we described at the top of this article. You really should read their stuff.

Image: Dept. of Defense