President-elect Trump has nominated retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as the nation’s 26th secretary of defense. It was, and will be, a controversial pick, since by law a military officer must be retired for seven years to serve in a civilian capacity, but Mattis only retired four years ago. Despite his rock star status in the Marine Corps and on Capitol Hill, there are likely to be thoroughgoing hearings on his nomination. Below are a few questions General Mattis should be asked.
You are no doubt familiar with the law preventing military officers from serving as civilians immediately following their retirement. One of the nation’s leading scholars of civil-military relations remarked after a meeting with you that you “understand the importance of civilian control of the military.” But you are also a student of history. What is your sense of the anti-military tradition in the United States? Do you worry that our republican character has been eroded by seventy years of militarization? How does the prospect of a retired Marine general as defense secretary affect that tradition, or not?
The important part here is whether Mattis recognizes not just an anti-militarism tradition, but our anti-military tradition. The Founders of this country loathed standing armies. In 1783, Revolutionary War veteran Aedanus Burke warned, “military commanders acquiring fame … are generally in their hearts aristocrats, and enemies to the popular equality of a republic.” John Randolph saw no serious threats to the Republic and accordingly denounced the Army as “loungers, who live upon the public, who consume the fruits of their honest industry, under the pretext of protecting them from a foreign yoke.” Randolph sneered at the idea that a country of virtuous and self-sufficient republicans would be forced to seek “the protection of a handful of ragamuffins.” Benjamin Rush suggested placing signs above the entrance to the Department of War reading “An office for butchering the human species” and “A Widow and Orphan making office.”
Will Mattis acknowledge this, but protest that the world has changed since then? It has changed, but for the better. These men were writing at a time when three European empires were rampaging across the North American continent, and ultimately burned the White House to the ground during the War of 1812. Were the Founders wrong to be anti-military? Is the world today more dangerous than it was when foreign troops were fighting wars on North American soil? What is his view of the threat environment today as compared to the time when these anti-military sentiments held sway in the halls of power?
What is your sense of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s role in the fight against ISIS so far, and the prospect for US-Iran relations going forward?
An article in Politico details what the author describes as Mattis’ “anti-Iran animus.” While animus is understandable, some of the claims he has made about Iran are not. For instance, he is quoted at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last April as saying that “I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”
What did he mean by this? Was he really suggesting that Iran was collaborating with, rather than fighting, ISIS? What is his view of the role Iran plays in the Middle East in the context of American strategy there?
Given Congress’ emphasis on Iran, and the importance of civilian control of the military, there should be ample room to explore the next defense secretary’s positions on these issues.