There’s a tradition in the United States of maintaining a rigid barrier between military and civilian leadership to prevent the possibility of a coup d’etat.
Nevertheless, it looks like easy sledding ahead to congressional confirmation of Secretary of Defense-nominee James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general. Despite the polarized political climate, he has the rare attribute of being liked and respected by Republicans and Democrats.
The outspoken Mattis is “considered a deity by many troops and veterans,” according to the Marine Corps Times. He has conflicting nicknames —“Mad Dog,” because of the ferocity of his language and actions, and “Warrior Monk,” for his thoughtful approach to warfare.
He was nominated to the post by President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 1. In announcing his choice, Trump compared Mattis to World War II Gen. George Patton.
The job of secretary of defense is particularly important for Hawaii. The state serves as headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Command, which has the responsibility of keeping the peace in an area that comprises a little over half the Earth’s surface.
Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who has served on the House Armed Services Committee, likes to say that she represents all four branches of the military, located within a radius of only 17 miles.
That makes it, after the Pentagon, the second-most-dense military concentration in the world, Hanabusa said.
The Pacific Command, which employs 380,000 soldiers, sailors and civilian workers, is based at Camp H.M. Smith just outside of Honolulu.
It faces daunting challenges today, including the volatile leadership in North Korea — a hostile nation that has tested nuclear weapons, the spillover of Islamic State terrorism into the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and growing military aggression by the Chinese, who have built military facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The commander of the Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., would report directly to Mattis. And Mattis would report to Trump.
Hanabusa told Civil Beat she believes that Mattis will be confirmed as secretary of defense. She said she doesn’t know him personally, but thinks he has enough support to win Senate confirmation.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, met with Mattis on Friday. Afterward her office said in a statement that she had “secured a commitment” from him “to continue to strengthen America’s strategic interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region if he is confirmed.”
“Hawaii has a huge role to play in our strategic interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Hirono said in the statement. “Gen. Mattis assured me that he shares my perspective that our actions and continued presence in the region are of critical importance to national security.”
“I will keep an open mind in considering General Mattis’ nomination,” Hirono told Civil Beat in a separate statement. “I respect his decades of military service.”
Mattis grew up in the Pacific Northwest, attended Central Washington University and rose through the ranks, ending his military career as commander of the U.S. Central Command in March 2013.
His recent tenure in the armed services has raised concern because under long-established law designed to ensure that the military doesn’t try to gain undue influence within the federal government, military officials are required to wait seven years after leaving the service before being permitted to serve as secretary of defense.
Both houses of Congress would need to take action to grant Mattis a waiver from the law.
Republican congressional leaders, who hold the majority in both the House and Senate, are enthusiastic about Trump’s pick for the top military post. The Senate is actually responsible for confirming nominees for Cabinet posts.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a prisoner of war for five years during the Vietnam War who was insulted and called “not a war hero” by Trump during the presidential campaign, nevertheless said he would support Mattis.
“As he has throughout the many years I have known him, (Mattis) has demonstrated exceptional command of the issues confronting the United States, the Department of Defense, and our military service members,” McCain said in a statement Dec. 7. “I am confident he will make an excellent Secretary of Defense, and I will continue to offer my full support throughout the confirmation process to ensure that he can get to work on behalf of our nation and our service members as soon as possible.”
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s ranking member, had similar words of praise: “General Mattis is an extraordinarily accomplished Marine officer of great intellect. His selfless service to the nation has made a lasting contribution.”
Other Democrats have indicated they are more open to Mattis than many other Cabinet nominees and said they are hopeful he may temper Trump’s tendency toward hair-trigger reactions.
“The president-elect’s impulsive, ill-informed and dangerous ideas on America’s military and national security strategy have always been gravely concerning,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement. “The decision to order Americans into combat requires the most serious and somber judgement. … As secretary of defense, General Mattis will have the immense responsibility of improving President Trump’s judgment as Commander-in-Chief.”
In Tom Ricks’ 2006 book, “Fiasco,” which chronicled the tragically flawed invasion of Iraq, Mattis was one of the few officers who was depicted as competent, fierce and also moral. On one occasion, Mattis was reported to have gathered recalcitrant Iraqi military officers together to tell them: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: if you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
In Ricks’ 2012 book “The Generals,” which discussed the weaknesses in military leadership, Mattis was described as one of the few “flexible commanders able to think independently.”
But Mattis’ maverick streak did not endear him to officials within the Obama administration, and he was pushed out of his job in 2013 after raising pointed questions about military strategy.
Mattis subsequently joined the Hoover Institution as a visiting fellow, where he co-edited a book called “Warriors and Citizens, American Views of Our Military,” which was published last year.
The book does not address Mattis’ departure from the service, but says that the relationship between Obama and the military “was a tense one from the start,” because Obama had run for office criticizing Bush’s military policies and promising to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the book, scholars also discussed the tensions between the military and political elites, highlighting the difficulty for the military in dealing with political leaders who have no military experience, unlike previous generations of elected officials. But military leaders eager to succeed in battle sometimes lack the wider perspective civilian leaders need to develop to win public office, they noted.
Mattis would face many challenges as defense secretary. The department will be expected to put into action Trump’s defense and foreign policy agenda. Trump has called for an ambitious expansion of the naval fleet and a substantial increase in military spending.
But the president-elect has also signaled that he will expect manufacturers to control the costs of armaments. This will place the defense secretary in the role of building capacity but also ensuring it happens under strict financial controls.
Mattis has already had some influence on Trump’s thinking. On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed torture as a way to obtain information from enemies. Mattis has repeatedly said he opposes torture.
The two men discussed the issue when they met at Trump’s golf course in New Jersey. Trump said Mattis told him that he could get better cooperation from terror suspects by giving them “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”
“I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump told reporters.