James Mattis was sworn in as secretary of defense in what is arguably one of the more fraught periods in civil-military relations in decades.
While civilian control in the United States is based on a solid foundation of history, doctrine, and tradition, civil-military relationships are above all human. And that means they are vulnerable to unrealistic or unmet expectations and perceptions. Simply put, tension invariably infuses these relationships — it’s merely a question of how much and in which way. As such, this relationship should expect strains, some demanding mitigation.
Nearly two decades of (inconclusive) war, serious lapses in the quality of support to our veterans, and a destabilizing budget roller coaster have been some of the major stressors. These are bracketed by a growing disconnect between those who serve, the civilian population, and emerging political factors. A particularly tumultuous election with unprecedented veteran and general officer partisan participation did not stop or mitigate threats of purges of general officers by the Trump campaign. Despite such anti-military rhetoric, Trump eventually faced suspicion that his cabinet was overly militarized and went to bat in support of a waiver for Mattis’s own confirmation. These events, along with an expected, but nonetheless toxic, increase in friction between military and civilian staffs at the Pentagon set the stage for Mattis’ arrival at the River Entrance a few short months ago.
In many ways, Secretary Mattis is well-suited to manage these tensions. He has lived the complex, complicated, and inchoate reality of policymaking. He knows the reality is far from the classrooms of war colleges where tomes are filled with clean and coherent ends-ways-means diagrams, and in which guidance, roles, and missions, are clear and distinct. A ground combat veteran with a uniquely close relationship with the troops, a scholar of civil-military relations, a veteran of the Pentagon’s third deck on the E-ring, twice a combatant commander, and one of the veterans of today’s wars on the National Security Council, Mattis brings an ideal resume to this challenge.
But his presence in the Pentagon is not enough of an answer to some increasingly troubling civil-military dynamics, even though some are out of his control. Just as it’s unreasonable to expect Mattis to head off all problematic national security measures in this administration, requiring him to be a civil-military hallway monitor is unrealistic. However, in this environment, he can and should be more direct on critical issues across the span of civil-military dynamics: vertically, horizontally, societally, and politically.
Vertical Civil-Military Dynamics: The Chain of Command
President Donald Trump’s preference for current and retired senior military officers well-known. In a noteworthy departure from the last administration, he has delegated substantial decision authority to Mattis and lower level commanders, recently stating:
What I do is, I authorize my military … We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.
As skeptics on the pervasiveness of micromanagement, this is still an absolutely worthy instinct. But such delegation and empowerment of lower level decision-makers — civilian or military — requires several factors that do not appear yet to be prioritized, or even possible, in this administration. These include, first of all, a clear and documented understanding between the secretary, the chairman, the president, the national security advisor, and their subordinates on what military decisions merit what level of approval (e.g., presidential, interagency review, delegated to the secretary, or regional and local commanders). This is just as important in the Pentagon-White House relationships as it is internally within both the civilian and military sides of the Department of Defense. Establishing such clarity will grow more important as appointees begin to fill the ranks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the State Department.
But just as important, if not more, is a widespread understanding of the administration’s vision, namely its relevant strategies and objectives in particular theaters. That the administration is still debating its counter-ISIL, Afghanistan, and North Korea policies among others – none of which are well understood by Congress, allies, or the general public – is especially problematic. Requests for additional funding and troops for counter-ISIL and recent escalatory moves in Afghanistan and the Pacific give an appearance of the Department of Defense operating under its own authority with few strategic bounds. Mattis cannot lead or own such strategy reviews himself, but he can affirmatively lobby for their completion and transparency – as he has noted, Pentagon efforts will suffer without them.
A final factor necessary for this dynamic is transparent role delineation within the Department of Defense and civilian and military factions within to respect their lanes collaboratively. As at the end of any administration, civil-mililitary relations between the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense were particularly tense at the beginning of 2017. External political debates – like recent examination of the Goldwater Nichols Act – only exacerbate these dynamics. And the lack of political appointments within the Office of the Secretary of Defense makes this all the more challenging, with senior military officials able to take priority over their civilian counterparts.
Most administrations starts with the Pentagon confused about what the Secretary of Defense expects from his staff and the Joint Staff. If he is to be successful, it is imperative that Mattis offer painstaking clarity on how he expects them to interact and support himself and the president. They are distinct entities and when used best are far from duplicative. Civilian control and military advice are not exercised in solely the form of the secretary and the chairman. Neither can perform their roles without appropriate support from and collaborative friction between several layers of their respective organizations. Departmental debate is healthy, and if one portion of the building stovepipes their advice on the way to Secretary, such debate is stifled. Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford should expect self-interested bureaucratic politics to win out absent stronger oversight, to the detriment of themselves and the policy and military options they are presented with.
To be sure, the personal relationship between Mattis and Dunford should set this internal standard, but given the recent friction in the Pentagon the secretary may need to be even more pointed. Mattis and Dunford would be well served by addressing this tension head on in direct communication with staff, discussions with incoming leadership, and instances of civil-military success and failure in policy and process. As a part of this effort, incoming appointees working for Mattis should receive from him role clarity and marching orders that are unambiguous to them, their counterparts inside the building, and their subordinates.
The process for developing military options deserves particular attention, given historical challenges. Handing Mattis modern day Schlieffen Plans that focus primarily on military factors rather than accounting for policy and political dynamics serves neither him nor the President well. “Be skeptical of concepts that divorce war from its political nature,” warned Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster a few years ago. Those who avoid internal debate under the cover of presenting “best” military advice would do well to recall his wise words.
Horizontal Civil-Military Dynamics: The Interagency Debate
Challenges in the horizontal civil-military dynamic – how the military relates to other elements of power, like diplomacy, intelligence, and finance – are likewise out of Mattis’ control in many ways, but still deserve special attention. Trump’s affinity for generals means that his Situation Room is dominated by those in and recently in uniform. To be sure, National Security Advisor McMaster, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Dunford, National Security Council Chief of Staff Keith Kellogg, and Mattis are military leaders keenly attuned to national security challenges beyond the purely military space. But, as Alice Friend put it:
Because you have a lot of military minds thinking of this in a military context, you are going to get answers to things that are really, really finely tuned to the military considerations but not the diplomatic considerations or even the domestic political considerations.
And that’s to be expected. But middling reviews of Secretary Rex Tillerson’s early performance and his lack of appointed subordinates at the State Department have meant that a strong diplomatic voice is lacking in the Situation Room. Mattis well knows that the absence of such perspective, tools, and expertise State and USAID counterparts bring to bear is devastating to U.S. national security efforts. The counter-ISIL strategy alone is severely hindered if it is dominated by military strikes with no counterpart in governance and investment strategy.
If nobody is acting like they’re home at Foggy Bottom, Mattis and his staff will need to draw them out. The Pentagon cannot generate political, humanitarian, and development strategies and approaches in any context by itself (see Iraq and Afghanistan). Secretary Bob Gates made much of his weekly sessions with Secretary Rice and later Secretary Clinton and Mattis has taken up the practice. He should actively encourage similar engagement by all his subordinates. Likewise, Mattis should be pushing back hard internally, and even quietly on the Hill, at the anticipated enormous cuts to the State and USAID budgets. A defense budget increase at the cost of a catastrophic and irrecoverable slashing of diplomatic and aid efforts will not be worth it. Preventing conflicts when and where possible will always be cheaper — in lives and in treasure — than cleaning them up.
Societal Civil-Military Dynamics: The Growing Divide
As the recent editor of Warriors and Citizens with Kori Schake, Mattis is well aware of the nature of the divisions with and misunderstandings of American citizens and their professional volunteer military. Many of these challenges are best addressed by policy tools and practice at far lower levels, from recruitment and retention, to community engagement, to transition. However, there is a trend that Mattis may be best suited to address: the growing invisibility of today’s wars to the general public, and the lack of debate or discussion of the nature of America’s involvement in these conflicts. As he well knows, less than half of 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. The recent decisions by the Pentagon to stop releasing most troop numbers associated with deployments to Iraq and Syria only furthers this disconnect. There is no operational need for Americans to be kept in the dark about the nature and scope of the risks young men and women in uniform are taking on our behalf. Mattis should reverse this decision and do what he can to more actively engage with civilian communities on such matters.
Likewise, though it may be bureaucratically challenging, the lack of debate over the president’s authority to use force in the last 16 years is a serious disservice to the American people and service members. Everyone deserves an open discussion on where, how, and for what purpose the United States is engaged in hostilities. Mattis’ support for such a debate is known, but it would be a service to the nation to strongly advocate for such a review in the White House and on the Hill.
Political Civil-Military Dynamics: The Future of the Force and How It’s Perceived
Finally, Mattis’ tenure will be marked by how his appointment shapes the politicization of the military. Mattis’ own conduct will be a key indicator, of course, and his lack of involvement in the fractious 2016 election was a good step. But the president is doing him no favors by treating U.S. forces as a political audience. Trump clearly listens to Mattis, and addressing this issue head on will pay dividends for decades. Blurring the lines between political and military leadership helps neither entity, and American democracy doesn’t need the problems that come with doing so. Likewise, Mattis would do well to talk freely about the plusses and minuses of retired military serving in appointed or elected office.
It’s entirely possible that Mattis is taking many of these steps quietly and without public fanfare. But in this incredibly fraught civil-military environment, public steps are all the more necessary. This is particularly true in the case of the Department of Defense, a 2 million plus organization with extreme difficulty communicating even the most basic commander’s intent within its own staff. Public messages matter, as does leadership. We need them both right now.
Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
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. She is currently on the high seas.