Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, has been met with near-universal approval from Washington's foreign policy experts, among others.
The move has been endorsed by Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who was expected to be Hillary Clinton’s choice to run the Pentagon; by Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republican Rep. Mack Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; by William Cohen, a Republican who served as President Bill Clinton's defense secretary; and by Elliot Cohen and Peter Feaver, academics who served in the Bush administration.
Even The New York Times editorial board has backed Mattis.
But while there is no doubt that Mattis is an extremely competent, brave and experienced individual who could provide excellent military advice to the next president, if Trump wants to gain the most from him, he should recall Mattis to active duty.
Mattis is not, as Trump has suggested, another George Patton, the revered Army general who rose to prominence leading allied fores in Europe during World War II. Nor is Mattis more accomplished than many other generals who have held high-level defense posts during the last several decades, senior military officers who were never considered for defense secretary position. Matthew Ridgway, Creighton Abrams, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Wesley Clark, to name a few.
Placing Mattis at the helm of the Pentagon would be counterproductive. As Dr. Erin Simpson wrote for War on the Rocks, “not only does the role of Secretary of Defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire in him: his bluntness, his clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting.” As Simpson noted, “you cannot run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division,” which Mattis led as a two-star general during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
If Trump wants Mattis on his national security team, he should follow the example of President John Kennedy, who was influenced during his campaign for the presidency by former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor. His book, "The Uncertain Trumpet," was critical of President Dwight Eisenhower’s strategic restraint on policy and defense budgets. Thus, when Kennedy came into office, he recalled Taylor and made him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Trump could do this with Mattis, and have him replace Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Marine general currently serving as chairman, when Dunford's two-year term expires a few months into Trump’s presidency.
Such a move would be politically sensitive, of course. Mattis and Dunford are rather close, having served together as senior leaders in Iraq and then as fellow four-stars under Obama. Moreover, Dunford is in line for reappointment. Traditionally presidents grant Joint Chiefs chairmen a second term, having them serve a total of four years in that role. The only exception in recent memory was Gen. Peter Pace, who was pushed out after just two years.
But more important for Trump and Congress to consider is the bedrock American principle of civilian control of the military. It is true that we have permitted one retired general, George Marshall, to serve as defense secretary, but the circumstances in the summer of 1950 were much different than today.
The invasion of South Korea caught the U.S. completely off guard. Then-Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, who was following President Harry Truman’s guidance to cut the military, was removed when Truman realized he would need someone in that role with the stature and experience of a Marshall to reassure both the military and the country. In 1950, there was no one but Marshall who fit that bill. He choreographed the Allies' victory during World War II and, as secretary of state after the war, orchestrated the plan that returned to Europe to some sense of stability.
When Congress granted a waiver allowing Marshall to serve as defense secretary for one year, even though he had been retired less than 10 years, lawmakers made clear that “after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office should be approved.”
Installing Mattis — or any other general — to head the Pentagon would deprive the president of an essential nonmilitary viewpoint. Does Trump believe, for instance, that Mattis’ advice on Iran or the Islamic State would differ substantially from that offered by Dunford, Mattis’ comrade in arms and former subordinate?
Similarly, would Mattis, the career infantry officer, be willing to ensure that his fellow Marines and soldiers implement controversial but essential social changes that large segments of the uniformed military do not support, namely opening all ground combat jobs to women and allowing transgender people to serve openly?
Since the Pentagon's creation, the military has resisted such seismic change. That's true of integrating African Americans, ending the draft, dropping the ban on gays, and opening positions to women. Were it not for strong civilian secretaries like Melvin Laird, Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel, to name a few, it is highly unlikely that many of these changes would have prevailed.
Trump can easily find other qualified people to become defense secretary. One person, whom he already has interviewed, is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, who has served two tours in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. Appointing the first woman as secretary of defense would be much more significant than putting another general in the Pentagon. Congress must ensure that does not happen.
Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense and is a retired Navy captain. He was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.