Depending on who you ask, President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of retired General James Mattis as secretary of defense is either a stroke of genius or a looming danger to the concept of civil-military relations.

For Democratic senators like Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee that will be holding confirmation hearings for the former CENTCOM head, tapping a general to direct the Pentagon is an unwise infringement on civilian control of the military:

The waiver she is talking about is not really a waiver at all; in order for Mattis to serve as secretary of defense, Congress will have to pass legislation striking down a law that requires a member of the military to wait seven years after taking off the uniform before accepting a senior civilian job in the Pentagon. This has happened only once in America’s entire history, when Congress approved the nomination of former Army chief of staff George Marshall to lead the Pentagon in the post-World War II period.

Mattis, in other words, is in very good company.

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Despite concern registered by Democrats that Mattis’s appointment could ruin civil-military relations, Gillibrand will likely find herself in the minority – even within her own party. After a 41-year career in the armed forces, Mattis is a legend in the Marine Corps, where he commanded the 1st Marine Division’s thrust into Iraq in 2003 (read a letter that he sent to his fellow Marines before that operation was put into action) and oversaw the battle of Fallujah a year later, commonly described as the most intense urban conflict that the Marines have participated in since Vietnam. His three-year stint as the commander of all U.S. military forces in the Middle East, which abruptly ended after he was pushed out by the Obama administration, only solidified his reputation as a tough-talking, independent, no-nonsense, strategic thinker.

What we don’t know, of course, is whether Mattis will be as successful and effective as the top administrator in a gargantuan bureaucracy as he was during his career as a Marine. It’s one thing to lead men and women into combat; it’s another to sign the deployment orders, write the condolence letters, fight agency turf battles during meetings of the National Security Council, deal with members of Congress, and ensure that the Pentagon is adequately funded for current defense programs and future contingencies. The difference in workforce size alone is daunting: roughly 22,000 Marines compose the 1st Marine Division, a small fraction of the 1.3 million active duty military and 742,000 civilians who work in the Defense Department establishment. That’s a huge jump for anybody.

Mattis certainly has the intellect, warfighter chops, and credibility to lead the Pentagon: that isn’t in question. The big “known unknown,” as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, is whether Mattis will acclimate well to the grinding, slow-motion, heavy locomotive that is Defense Department bureaucracy.

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Will he able to maintain the positive relationships he has with both Republicans and Democrats on the armed services committees? How will he handle the defense caps under the Budget Control Act? Will he be able to convince Congress to sign off on another BRAC round and shed the defense infrastructure that Pentagon officials have said they don’t need and are a drain on much-needed resources? What will he do about the $125 billion in administrative waste at the Pentagon? And will he provide advice to Trump that the incoming president may not want to hear, particularly on matters like working with the Russians in Syria? (To his credit, he’s already proven effective on the torture question.)

We will soon find out.

Can James Mattis take on the bureaucratic monster that is the Defense Department? AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Daniel DePetris About the author:
Daniel R. DePetris is an associate analyst at the Raddington Group, and a contributor to the National Interest.
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