House, Senate committees meet to ponder civilian-military relations under President Trump

Congress’ two defense policy committees were set to meet Thursday to consider whether retired Gen. James Mattis should be the next secretary of Defense, something both houses of Congress will have to approve since his confirmation would require the suspension of a federal law that demands military officers be out of uniform for seven years before they become the military’s civilian boss.

Unlike the rest of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Mattis is set to appear before committees in both the Senate and the House, since both chambers would have to approve legislation that would waive the waiting period for the first time since 1950.

The measure is expected to pass both chambers because of widespread agreement about Mattis’ qualifications and character, but a hearing Tuesday gave wary lawmakers a chance to explore its implications for civilian control of the military and offered a preview of some of the questions the nominee might face Thursday.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, said he was concerned about the precedent Congress would set if the retired Marine Corps general were allowed to become secretary just three years after the conclusion of his 44-year military career.

“We must always be very cautious about any actions that may inadvertently politicize our armed forces,” Reed said. “During this past presidential election cycle, both Democrats and Republicans came dangerously close to compromising the nonpartisan nature of our military when the nominating conventions featured speeches from recently retired general officers advocating for a candidate for president.”

Kathleen Hicks, a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy who’s now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told lawmakers they’d be right to proceed cautiously, but that in this case, a waiver is appropriate — as long as Congress approves Mattis’ nomination because of what she said were his unique qualifications for the job — not merely because he is a general.

“I have grave concerns about the issuance of this exemption being portrayed or perceived as the result of the United States Senate agreeing with the President-elect that it is ‘time for a general’, to serve as Secretary of Defense,” Hicks said, citing one of the President-elect’s public rationales for nominating Mattis. “It should never be considered ‘time for a general’ to fill the senior-most nonelected civilian position in the operational chain of command. Rather, this exemption is about a particular individual who is well qualified for the position, the anticipation that the exemption will be a rare, generational one, and an assessment that there is — at this time — a healthy appreciation of the principle for civilian control of the military in this country.”

Eliot Cohen, a former senior State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who was harshly critical of Trump on national security grounds during the presidential campaign, said he also supports a waiver for Mattis, in part because of what he said was a unique understanding on Mattis’ part of the security problems DoD is now facing on matters such as Afghanistan, the Islamic State, North Korea, Russia and Iran. But he said he also believes Mattis has shown himself through his conduct and his writings to be someone who could serve as a careful, prudent voice of reason.

“Ours is a dangerous world that can tip into crisis with very little notice. And yet, even this sense of danger would not bring me to the point of urging a revision of the law were it not for my concerns about the incoming administration,” he said. “I have sharply criticized President Obama’s policies, but my concerns pale in comparison with the sense of alarm I feel about the judgment and dispositions of the incoming White House team. In such a setting, there is no question in my mind that a Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening, and over time, helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction.”

Reed said his concerns about civilian control of the military are amplified by the fact that Mattis would not be the only recently-retired general to be serving at top levels of the Trump administration.

In addition, the President-elect has named former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his national security adviser and nominated Gen. John Kelly as the next secretary of Homeland Security.

“If we include Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the leadership of our national security apparatus will be comprised of two retired four-star generals, one active duty four-star general and one retired three-star general,” Reed said. “Diversity of opinion is important when crafting policy and making decisions as weighty as those facing the next administration, and I think it is appropriate to consider the consequences that so many leaders with similar military backgrounds will have for the development of defense policy, the impact it could have on the civilian and military personnel serving in these organizations and how it may shape the advice that will ultimately be provided to the president of United States.”

Cohen agreed the preponderance of retired generals presents a potential problem for the notion of civilian control — a situation that he said highlights the need for rigorous oversight on the part of Congress.

He said he’s not concerned about Dunford or Mattis’ behavior and predicted that both will stay in their “lanes” — the former as the president’s top military advisor, the latter as the civilian who exercises control over the military on behalf of the elected commander-in-chief.

“But there’s no question, it will be challenging,” Cohen said. “It would be the most natural thing in the world for a President Trump to ask General Mattis to act as kind of a military adviser. I think General Mattis, as Secretary Mattis, will be self-conscious enough to say, ‘Mr. President, I have my views, but you really should be directing that question to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.'”

Hicks agreed that a lack of diversity of experience from outside of the military might present problems for the government’s national security apparatus, but said the problem could be mitigated if the President-elect fills more junior political appointment slots with nominees from other backgrounds.

“I think it’s fair to say that every secretary comes in truly with a unique set of skills,” she said. “That’s why Congress needs to take account of who’s nominated for the position of deputy secretary and others and think about what kind of management expertise is being brought in. It’s not fair to expect every attribute — management experience, international security experience, understanding of the bureaucratic elements — from one person. But it’s very important as this committee looks at confirmations for the whole Defense team that those attributes are covered.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) was among the senators who indicated this week that he was skeptical of Mattis’ nomination because it could potentially undermine the principle of civilian control of the military, but said he has decided to support a waiver in this case, partly because of the way the Senate Armed Services Committee drafted the legislation that would authorize an exception.

“It applies only to the first person appointed after the date of this act and to no other person, which means it can’t be used even for by another appointment of this president,” King said. “It is an extremely narrow precedent, and I’m comforted by this language. If a future occasion of this nature arises, we will have a hearing like this.”

That’s true, Cohen said, but he implored Congress to do everything it possibly can to ensure that such waivers don’t become routine.

He said other nations that have gone down that path have tended to make the military more insular and less responsive to the civilian population they’re supposed to serve and defend.

“If you look at the French or the Germans or even the Russians, when you begin to have retired generals as ministers of defense, you’re setting up problems that divide the military from normal politics,” Cohen said. “In some ways, this is what has happened in Israel, which is probably for us the most interesting case because it’s also a liberal democracy. There is a serious problem with the politicization of the senior officer corps and distinguishing between the military advice of the serving chief of the general staff and a minister of defense who only a couple of years before was a general officer.”

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