Watching Trump’s “Mad Dog”

by Douglas Stuart, professor of political science and international studies; J. William Stuart and Helen D. Stuart Chair in International Studies, Business and Management; adjunct professor, U.S. Army War College

Doug StuartFormer Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is widely regarded to be an exceptional candidate for the position of Secretary of Defense. Substantial majorities in both houses of Congress have concluded that being an exceptional individual justifies making an exception so that this recently retired general can serve as Sec Def. They are wrong.

Harry Truman was certainly convinced that such an exception was justified when he recommended George Marshall for the position of Secretary of Defense in 1950. In his prior statements on this issue, Truman had made it clear that he was opposed to the idea of a military leader serving as the head of the Department of Defense. Yet only three years after the passage of the National Security Act, which at the time stipulated that a person had to be retired from the military for at least 10 years before becoming Secretary of Defense, Truman made the case for an exception for Marshall. The president changed his position on this issue for two reasons. First, he considered Marshall to be “the greatest living American,” and he believed that a person of Marshall’s stature and reputation was needed at a time when the Korean War had just begun and relations between the serving Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, and some military leaders seemed to be irreparable. Second, Marshall had already established his bona fides as a civilian policy maker by his recent service as Secretary of State.

No such intervening factors exist today to justify an exception for General Mattis. The Washington foreign policy-making community is already too unbalanced in favor of military advisers, military perspectives and the use of military instruments to achieve goals that would be better handled by civilian agencies. Mattis’ placement at the top of the Defense Department, in combination with Michael Flynn’s appointment as National Security Advisor and the choice of John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security,  will decisively, and perhaps permanently, tip the scales in favor of a militarized approach to foreign policy.