Capitol Commentary: Mattis, Syria and U.S. foreign policy

By Fred Benson


“It is always dangerous for soldiers, sailors, or airmen to play at politics. They enter a sphere in which the values are quite different from those to which they have hitherto been accustomed.” — Winston Churchill, “The Gathering Storm,” 1948.

Civilian control of the military is so thoroughly ingrained in our political system that its sanctity is rarely questioned. The framers of the U.S. Constitution included two clearly worded sections to ensure the military would always be subordinate to civilian leadership. Article I, Section 8 states that Congress shall have the power “to raise and support Armies …” and “to provide and maintain a Navy,” and Article II, Section 2 declares that “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Taken together, these two sections give both the executive and the legislative branches of government shared power over our military forces and their commanders.

Defense Secretary James Mattis’s resignation in protest of Trump’s unilateral decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, coupled with the president’s angry response, raises the question of whether or not having a retired senior military officer serve as Secretary of Defense undermines the intent of the original constitutional provisions regarding civilian control of the military.

The language of the 1947 law creating the Department of Defense (DOD) suggests that there was a concern about senior military personnel filling the top Pentagon post. Congress established that a military officer could not become secretary of defense for at least 10 years after retiring from active duty. (Later, in 2008, the restriction was reduced to seven years.)

In spite of those restrictions, it would appear helpful for any Defense Secretary to have had some experience in the military. A better understanding of military history, the workings of military units, and a higher level of acceptance from military leaders would be of great value in such a complex environment. Of the 26 secretaries who have served since the establishment of the DOD in 1947, all but seven have had military service. Most, however, were below the rank of colonel and were on active duty for relatively short periods early in their lives.

There are two exceptions: The third DOD Secretary, Five Star General George C. Marshall, the author of the plan to rebuild Western European economies after World War II, and Four Star General James Mattis, thought by many to be among the very top military officers of his generation. As neither general met the congressionally-mandated waiting periods, Congress had to pass special legislation to allow them to serve as Defense Secretary. Both men were excellent choices.

What those exceptional senior military officers selected to be Secretary of Defense must understand, however, is that they are not serving as generals or admirals, but as civilian officials bound to the political agenda of the president who appointed them. And if their own values deviate from presidential decisions, the only solution is to resign.

Having been placed in exactly that position, Secretary Mattis did the right thing by resigning and detailing his strong concerns related to the removal of US troops from Syria.

Trump, Mattis, and many members of Congress agree that the U.S. should not be the “police force for the world.” Yet currently we have approximately 165,000 U.S. military personnel deployed in 150 countries with an additional 40,000 on undisclosed classified missions.

Furthermore, we have been at war in Afghanistan for more than 17 years, only to be told recently by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that we are at a “stalemate with the Taliban.” It is clear that an exhaustive review of all these military commitments is needed. Trump’s interest in doing so is commendable.

But Trump’s Twitter announcement to get out of Syria was seen widely as a chaotic retreat that will put our allies in physical jeopardy, undermine the alliances we have built to deal with international terrorism, and embolden our most dangerous enemies. Of greatest concern, however, was that Trump exhibited total disregard for the expertise of those American professionals entrusted with our national defense, intelligence matters and statecraft. He was winging it on his own.

Any decision related to getting into — or out of — a military conflict demands attention to the consequences and timing involved. Pulling out of Syria may eventually be the right thing to do, but only after careful deliberation within our government and coordination with allies affected by that decision.

I do not know Gen. Mattis personally, but I do know many people who have worked with him over the years. All agree that he is the epitome of a tough, hard-charging, and effective Marine combat leader. For many of his 44 years on active duty, he was in the midst of whatever fighting was taking place. In a CBS interview, he was once asked “What keeps you awake at night?” He responded in true Mattis fashion: “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.”

Gen. James Mattis deserves our respect and appreciation for his stellar military career and for his commitment to keeping this country on a safe and sane path. We owe him.

Fred Benson lives in Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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