An Understanding of the Mission: Former Military in Trump’s Cabinet

| Leon E. Panetta
Leon E. Panetta
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense

Compared to the rest of his proposed cabinet, President Donald Trump’s pick of retired Marine Corps General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense has been one of his least controversial. However, due to his recent retirement from the military, Mattis needed – and received – a waiver from Congress to serve. Meanwhile, the choice of two other former military officers to fill high-ranking security related posts has made this one of the most military-heavy administrations since President Ulysses S. Grant. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, about what role these former military figures might play in the new administration and how that role will affect foreign policy decision-making.  

The Cipher Brief: What does the appointment of James Mattis – a recently retired Marine Corps General – mean for civil-military relations and, more specifically, for Pentagon culture?

Leon Panetta: As with any nominee for a cabinet position, you have to weigh the merits of that individual, and whether or not that person has the background and capability to handle the job. In the case of General Mattis, I’ve worked with him and have tremendous respect and confidence in his ability, not only as a military commander but also as somebody who has the good sense to make the right decisions and the right judgements when it comes to our national security. My view is that certainly in this instance, Congress made the right decision in providing a waiver – required due to his recent retirement from the Marine Corps –  to allow Mattis to serve as defense secretary.

TCB: Taking a more general look at civil-military relations in this country – specifically the concept of civilian control over the military – is it important to have a career civilian secretary of defense?

LP: It’s important to have someone who understands the civilian role of being secretary. We all remember that iconic painting in the nation’s Capitol with George Washington resigning his commission in order to become President of the United States. Individuals who run the Department of Defense (DoD) must recognize not just the military requirements and needs in that department, but also how that department responds to the broader civilian issues that affect the American people. And it’s for that reason that anyone who becomes Secretary of Defense has to recognize and respect both the military and civilian roles encompassed in that position.

TCB: So in your mind, it’s more of a question of shared values rather than whether or not you have served in the military?

LP: Yes, I don’t think a military background should automatically exclude you from that position. The question Congress must be satisfied with is whether that individual understands and respects the civilian role that’s involved in that position. If that person understands and respects that part of the role, then that is the most important thing to determine whether that person should become secretary.

TCB: The Department of Defense has a strong career civilian workforce. What is the ratio of civilians to military personnel and how does that help or hurt the DoD? Do you foresee the ratio changing at all?

LP: I certainly hope not.

When I went to the DoD there were about three million people that were involved in the DoD. About one million civilians and two million people in uniform. The civilian workforce worked on policy issues that involve how we deal with foreign countries, how we deal with Congress, and how we deal with relevant civilian issues, particularly surrounding military bases, etc. It is critical to have a civilian workforce able to participate in policymaking efforts at the Pentagon.

I, as Secretary, certainly benefited from having civilians working in my office and being able to provide support for me, not only when looking at defense issues but also when I looked at broader issues of how we treat our personnel, who are extremely important to the mission of the Pentagon.

TCB: And is that because of the different expertise that civilians with different disciplinary backgrounds bring to the institution?

LP: The role of Secretary reflects, in many ways, not only military responsibility but a diplomatic role as well. As you go to these various countries to deal with security issues, it’s critical to understand the diplomatic issues as well.

Every time I traveled I was prepared for those meetings by people who had diplomatic backgrounds and understood the nature of those countries. That was certainly important but, in addition to that, the Defense Department has to provide healthcare for its people, has to meet their personnel needs, has to deal with their families, has to deal with issues that involve the education of their children, and manage their retirement. All of these things involve benefits that have to be provided and you need people who understand those issues. That’s why, in particular, having civilians – some of whom are retired from the military, of course – play a role at the Pentagon really broadens the ability of the Defense Department to be responsive not only to our military missions but to the people that have to implement them.

TCB: Beyond Mattis, Trump has also appointed former General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, and all of his choices to replace General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor are former military officers as well. What does that high representation of former military officers in top national security-related cabinet positions tell you about the Trump administration? How does it change the relationship between the DoD, the White House, the National Security Council, etc. and how does that affect the way that national security decisions will be made?

LP: Again, you can’t look at those appointments in isolation without considering the other nominees that have been recommended for cabinet positions. When you look at the nature of the White House, having some steady common sense people in key positions, even though they may have military backgrounds, is probably not a bad idea for this administration.

Should you be careful about how far you go in terms of military leadership positions in government? Of course. You should recognize that there has to be a balance between those that have military backgrounds and those that come from the civilian community. However, at the same time, if you have good people in these positions who have experience or common sense and are willing to say what they believe to an administration that may not always have that experience and background and common sense, it’s probably not a bad thing that they’re there.

TCB: So there is a danger here – but one perhaps outweighed by the benefits for this administration?

LP: Exactly. You have to look at the whole context: what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. We now have a situation in which you don’t know from day to day what’s going to happen, and there is at least a certain comfort level knowing that there are some people there who understand what the mission in this country should be.

TCB: Is this maybe a best-case scenario in your mind? That, in areas of national security policy where President Trump and his team don’t seem to have much experience, that they will delegate these policies down to the cabinet-level leadership?

LP: Well, you would hope. It’s hard to tell how this process works in this White House right now. It is hit and miss and we’re not quite sure whether proper procedures have been put in place. But, if proper procedures are there, if the National Security Council (NSC) is operating the way it should, having people with those backgrounds in the room is not a bad thing.

TCB: Taking a broader look at the country in general, have you noticed a change in the way that society, and perhaps more importantly political elites, understand and view the military?

LP: Over the last ten or more years – going back to 9/11 – there has been a great deal of respect for the men and women in uniform who had to go out there and put their lives on the line for this country, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or working in general counterterrorism efforts.

As a result, there has clearly been high regard for military leaders. But, having said that, I think military leaders, like civilian leaders, have to be judged on their ability and whether they are dedicated to the country and whether they’re good at what they do. You don’t just appoint military leaders because they’re military; you appoint people that have been involved in the military because they know what the hell they’re doing.

TCB: As a former Director of the CIA, how do you see the dynamic between the intelligence community and the administration playing out right now? Especially after the recent furor over leaks, General Flynn’s resignation, and alleged administration ties to the Russian government?

LP: I’m very concerned about this relationship, and I think it has now been fractured in a number of ways. My view is that the president of the United States cannot defend this country without having a relationship of trust with the intelligence community. They need to provide important intelligence to the president so he can make critical decisions on national security, and right now that relationship is in turmoil. The hope is that people who are appointed to key positions in the intelligence community can work to help restore that trust because it is critical to the security of our country.

TCB: Do you think there is any credence to the Trump administration’s focus on the number of leaks to the press coming from the intelligence community?

LP: Well, in my experience, every president I’ve worked with has been concerned about leaks. Leaks are one of the things that every administration has to deal with. In my experience, the best way to deal with leaks is for the president and to the administration to develop loyalty within the intelligence agencies, and you develop that loyalty by doing the right things for the country. If you do that, the people will be loyal to you and will refrain from leaking. But if that relationship of trust is not there, there isn’t a team spirit and the feeling that everyone is on the same team, then you’re going to get a hell of a lot of leaks taking place no matter what the hell you do.

TCB: Drawing on your experience as former White House Chief of Staff and looking at the general confusion at the White House, what is the most worrying source of organizational dysfunction that you see, especially in the way that national security institutions are being led and managed?

LP: I don’t think anything in government operates well without discipline and a clear chain of command in terms of who is responsible to who and what they’re responsible for. My sense is that there is no clear chain of command in the White House right now. There are a number of centers of power. It’s not just the Chief of Staff but it’s a group of advisors and consults to the president, all of whom have some responsibility, but no one’s quite sure what that responsibility is. This creates competition, it creates confusion, and I think it does a disservice to White House staff that ought to be working as one to help support the president.

TCB: Do you see the mixed messages and apparent disarray at the White House as having the potential to exacerbate a national security or foreign policy crisis?

LP: Oh yeah. It raises serious concerns because if you don’t have a national security council that’s operating the way it should, then how do you deal with crises that the president’s going to have to face in a thoughtful and careful way?

TCB: Last thoughts?

LP: The most important thing is that all of us need to remember that our forefathers believed deeply in a system of checks and balances in our democracy because they didn’t want to centralize power in any one branch of government. No matter how concerned we are, I hope all of us are able to have trust in the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution. If we do, I think we will ultimately get through this period. 

The Author is Leon E. Panetta

Unanimously confirmed in 2011 by the U.S. Senate as the twenty-third Secretary of Defense, Leon E. Panetta has had a fifty year career in public service at the highest levels of government:  as Secretary of Defense, he established a new defense strategy; as Director of the CIA, he successfully led the operation that brought Osama bin Ladin to justice. Secretary Panetta began his public service career in 1964 as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, receiving the Army Commendation Medal,... Read More

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