Questions Congress Should Ask the Defense Secretary Nominee

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

President-elect Donald Trump has called his chosen Defense Secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis “the real deal,” but after January 20, will President Trump, an amateur when it comes to national security issues, follow the advice of the 66-year-old, experienced, warrior-diplomat?

Before that point is reached, the Armed Services Committees of both the House and Senate will have the chance to question Mattis on what his views are – instead of the Senate alone, which later will handle confirmation for the job. 

The extra hearings are thanks to the requirement that Congress must pass a law waiving the requirement that a former military officer be retired for at least seven years before being confirmed as Defense Secretary. Mattis has been retired for only three years.

Those public hearings will not only test Mattis, but also the new Congress to see just how firmly legislators act as a third branch of government and not just members of the Democratic opposition or Republican administration.

Ironically, Mattis, since retiring, has been a strong advocate of Congress increasing its participation in military and foreign policy affairs.

In a talk this past April before the Center for Strategic and International Security (CSIS), Mattis criticized Congress for failing to pass a new authorization for the President to use force against ISIS [the Islamic State]. He said approving such a measure “would again demonstrate American stability and focus on the region.”

Instead, Mattis said, the legislators “appear to be more willing to sit outside and criticize the President rather than put themselves on the line and say here is where we stand.”

In that same speech, Mattis took issue with one of Trump’s longest held views – that allies should reimburse Washington for providing for their defense.

Mattis voiced surprise at President Barack Obama’s statement in an interview where the president called some allies “free riders,” with the retired Marine thinking at first he was reading something Trump had said. 

In either case, Mattis added, “I would just say that for a sitting U.S. president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts.”

He spoke of the benefits of working with allies, specifically mentioning the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was one of the Gulf States that Trump often has described as a rich country not paying its own way and that “would not exist without the U.S.”

Mattis, instead, referred to the UAE as “little Sparta,” because as he said, “They stand by us through thick and thin – Desert Shield, Somalia, Dalmatian coast, Bosnia. They’ve always been there.” He also pointed out that Saudi Arabia, another country Trump regularly criticizes as not paying for U.S. defense support, “just recently passed Russia as the third-largest spender on military weapons in the world,” with most of that Saudi money paying for American supplied arms.

House and Senate Armed Services Committee members should have Mattis explain how he is going to get Trump to understand the important role such allies play in making the U.S. more secure.

Here’s what Mattis said in an article he co-authored for a book, A Blueprint for American Security, that was published this past August:

“Those who oppose sustained international involvement because of its cost have the argument exactly wrong: Only by coming together with allies and attending to the maintenance of the international order can we amass the resources necessary for the long-term management of our interests. Without allies, we would be defending our country on the goal line. Unilateralism may occasionally be necessary, when speed or secrecy require, but it is costly. It is also inconsistent historically with America’s greatest achievements, when we led alliances of responsible nations in worthy causes.”

The committees need to have Mattis discuss his apparent difference with Trump on the way ahead in Syria. Trump, and his designated National Security Adviser retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, want to join with Russia and Iran in fighting ISIS in Syria and limit or end U.S. support for [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s opposition.

Mattis, on the other hand, told the CSIS audience that with regard to U.S. actions in Syria, the “worst case” conspiracy theory being circulated in the region was “that we [the U.S.] have made actually common cause with Iran, Russia and Assad,” suggesting that “you have to keep beating [that] down.” He said, “It is something that has to be addressed, and it’s best addressed right up front: that’s not our intent.”

The committees should also get Mattis to expand on his views of Iran and how he believes the U.S. should deal with Tehran in the future.

Mattis told the CSIS that he sees Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” and its “most belligerent actor.” He described ISIS as “nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,” with Tehran having a lot to gain from the turmoil the Islamic terrorists are causing in the region and elsewhere.

He said, for example, that Iran had doubled down on its support for Assad so that “if Assad falls, that’s the biggest strategic setback in 30 years for the mullahs there in Tehran.”

Despite this view of Tehran, and his original opposition to the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Mattis does not want to tear it up, as Trump once proposed, or even renegotiate it, as Trump has also said. 

Mattis wants to “plan for the worst” if they cheat on the agreement, and that includes “better targeting data should it come to a fight at some point in the future.” But he also conceded that the so-called military option against Iran’s nuclear program “could have delayed it for a year or two before we would have to take more military action.”

Meanwhile, he believes the U.S. should work to meet four other threats posed by Iran.

To counter Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, the U.S. will have to bolster and integrate missile defense elements in the Gulf area, as the Obama administration has already begun. In the cyber area, there will have to be increased monitoring.

To meet Iran’s maritime threat, Mattis wants to increase the U.S. Navy’s presence [two carrier groups rather than one] and conduct multi-nation naval exercises. When Mattis was the head of Central Command in 2012, he initiated an anti-mining exercise after an Iranian senior official threatened to mine the Gulf and halt oil shipments. Ships from 29 nations originally participated, 39 in the most recent, and there has been no talk from Tehran about mining since, Mattis said.

Iran has increased its meddling in other countries, including shipments of arms to its allies in Yemen, Syria, and even Iraq. Mattis proposes continuing to try to halt such shipments and remaining firm in barring Iran from access to American financial institutions as a way to inhibit Tehran’s economic benefits from the agreement.

Along with questioning Mattis about his views on Iran, the committees should explore his concern that over the past 13 years, presidents and other elected officials have depended on the military to make the political arguments in support of the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

He told the CSIS audience, “It sets up military leaders as the guarantors of public support, something that should be an anathema to the long-standing balance of civil-military roles in America.”

Although that might gain a president “near-term public support for a particular policy,” Mattis said, it “may result in a long-term erosion of the military’s standing with the American public if the people come to see military leaders as politicized.”

While Trump may have chosen Mattis because he saw in him another General George Patton or was enamored with his nickname “Mad Dog,” these are not the thoughts that go along with such an image.

The House and Senate members have a responsibility to get on the record for the public the man that Mattis is.

Related Articles