The praise for Donald Trump's choice for defense secretary, James N. Mattis, has been quick and nearly universal, with members of Congress and his former colleagues hailing the retired Marine general as a clear-eyed, straight-shooting soldier's soldier who would bring a new strategic vision to the Pentagon.
Mattis' military credentials are impeccable, and his three years leading U.S. Central Command, the Tampa-based headquarters that oversees military operations in the Middle East, give him a valuable perspective as the United States continues its fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. But Mattis' fresh military experience also raises concerns, and beyond requiring a change in law to allow him to serve, the Senate also needs to ensure that Mattis has the broader political and administrative skills to be effective.
On the surface, Mattis passes two critical tests. He is uniquely qualified as a commander and military thinker. As a one-star general, he led an amphibious force that carried out the first Marine attack in Afghanistan's Kandahar province only weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, securing a U.S. foothold against the Taliban. He led the 1st Marine Division during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and later returned to lead Marines in the tough street battle to retake Fallujah. He rewrote the military's counterinsurgency doctrine with then-Army Gen. David Petraeus, and like Petraeus, became chief of Central Command, the operation housed at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, where his area of responsibility spanned 20 nations including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. As a general, he worried about what his fighters in the field needed. He is well-read, with a library of 7,000 books, mostly on history and war. In fact, he carried his copy of Meditations — written by the philosophical Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius — into combat in Iraq.
The 66-year-old Mattis also clearly fits comfortably within Trump's orbit. "We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense," Trump told a Cincinnati crowd on Thursday, using a nickname for the general whose aggressive techniques and blunt language have given him a cult status in some military quarters. His selection would seem in keeping with the tenor of Trump's earlier appointments to his national security team, such as his choice of retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., as CIA chief, both of whom are known for their sharp elbows and rhetoric.
Mattis has taken a hard line on Iran, calling it "the single most enduring threat" to peace in the region, and has criticized the Obama administration for what he sees as having an aimless vision for the Middle East. Yet he also is more of a realist than Trump, striking a tougher tone on Russia and acknowledging the value of multilateral ties. His service at CentCom and NATO should help bring the president-elect around on the value of military and political alliances.
Mattis has strong support in Congress, and it is expected that the former general, who retired in 2013, would likely obtain a waiver to bypass a federal law that bars a uniformed member serving as Pentagon chief until seven years after retirement. An exception was granted only once, in 1950, when President Harry Truman turned to retired Army Gen. George C. Marshall during the heaviest fighting of the Korean War.
Civilian control of the military is a fundamental aspect of American democracy. However qualified Mattis is as a military commander, running a federal agency is altogether different. As a practical matter, Congress does not treat Cabinet officers with the same deference as generals. The administration could run into infighting if generals at the Pentagon disagree with ex-military whom Trump installs at the White House. Congress, and the Senate especially, has an obligation to consider how this unusual if competent pick would affect the administration and the course of national security.