7 Tough Questions for ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis

Does Gen. James Mattis have what it takes to disagree with a reckless and uninformed commander in chief?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 4: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) meets with retired General James Mattis on January 4, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. General Mattis is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Defense. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 4: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) meets with retired General James Mattis on January 4, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. General Mattis is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Defense. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis will have his confirmation hearing for secretary of defense on Jan. 12. I have made it clear that I oppose this nomination. Not because Mattis lacks the necessary knowledge of defense issues — after a 41-year career in the military, there are few who have more experience.

But his confirmation would put into that office only the second high-ranking military officer ever to serve as secretary, a direct violation of the principle of civilian control of the military. The only precedent, Gen. George Marshall, served as secretary in 1950 for only a year, and his appointment was considered so unprecedented that Congress wrote a special and specific law making it clear that the appointment was exceptional and should not happen again.

Well, it seems to have been a precedent after all. Given the wildly unpredictable and controversial president-elect, some now argue that when it comes to issues of peace and war, Mattis will be a “moderating” influence and a “steady hand” in the Situation Room. Of course, if Donald Trump wanted a steady hand at the heart of the military, he could have appointed Mattis as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the normal perch for military advisors to the president.

Despite the unprecedented nature of this appointment, Senate Democrats have left Mattis off their hit list and seem prepared to vote in favor of the waiver he will require to assume the office only three years after retiring. But senators, especially Democrats (and the one independent, Maine’s Angus King) on the Armed Services Committee, are obliged to try to find out if Mattis will truly be the adult in the Situation Room. So here are seven critical national security issues that should be front and center during the confirmation hearings:

1. The president-elect has said he would reinstitute the use of waterboarding, among other forms of torture, a practice prohibited by President Barack Obama. Mattis is on record as saying that torture is not a very useful way to obtain information in interrogations. But will the real Jim Mattis stand up to Trump when the issue of torture, or other “extreme” measures, inevitably comes up?

2. Trump has called for the United States to “strengthen and expand” its nuclear capabilities. Mattis is on record as favoring a strict deterrence-only role for nukes and suggesting that land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) might be retired. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has argued that the United States should step back and review its nuclear policy and capabilities, in particular, retiring ICBMs and not proceeding with a destabilizing nuclear-armed cruise missile program. The Defense Department’s own 2013 nuclear employment strategy says deterrence would be assured with even fewer than the 1,550 strategic warheads allowed by the New START agreement, regardless of what the Russians do. Will Mattis oppose “expanding” the nuclear arsenal, retire the ICBMs, and halt the nuclear cruise missile program?

3. Trump has excoriated Islam and warned of security risks from Muslim immigrants to the United States. His national security advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has called Islam a “cancer” and argued that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” Mattis has said: “The fundamental question I believe is, ‘Is political Islam in our best interest?’ If not, what is our policy to authoritatively support the countervailing forces?” As secretary of defense, Mattis would lead the organization at the cutting edge of combat with terrorist organizations. Does he share Trump and Flynn’s extreme characterizations of Islam?

4. Trump has said the United States will no longer intervene militarily around the world and that we are done with “nation building.” At the same time, he calls for a global war on the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Mattis has been at the heart of interventions, counterterrorism operations, and nation-building efforts by the U.S. military. Does he agree with Trump that nation building should not be a military mission? How will he square that with the demand for a war on terrorist organizations, which are necessarily interventionist? Would he withdraw U.S. special operations forces from any of the more than 80 countries where they are currently engaged in nation-building activities (e.g., governance advice, counterterrorism training, local economic projects)?

5. Trump has condemned the nuclear agreement with Iran as a “bad deal” and has said he would renegotiate it. Mattis appears to share Trump’s distrust of Iran and dislike of the agreement, which suggests he might not be a moderating influence here. Is he prepared to help tear up that agreement? Should the agreement collapse, would he endorse U.S. military action or support an Israeli attack were Iran to renew its nuclear program? Should it be required, would he advocate a U.S. invasion of Iran to ensure that the nuclear program is shut down?

6. Trump advocates closer cooperation between the United States and Russia and has suggested that Article 5 of the NATO treaty (on mutual defense) might not be inviolable if member nations spend too little on defense. Mattis has spoken out forcibly about the dangers posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the risk that NATO could be taken apart. Does Mattis think a friendly relationship is possible with a country that has seized Crimea, destabilized Ukraine, intervened militarily on behalf of Syria’s dictator, and buzzed NATO forces with its aircraft? Does Mattis view Russian intentions and capabilities along its western border with the Baltic states and the central European nations as in any way threatening? Would Mattis suspend application of Article 5 to countries that fail to meet a 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal?

7. Trump has called for the elimination of the cap on defense budgets and a major increase in the size of the U.S. military force. Since eliminating the budget caps will require 60 votes in the Senate — and the Democrats will only agree if domestic spending goes up as well — there is a high prospect that the caps will remain in place. That would force Mattis to execute Trump’s program under fiscal constraints. What would be his priorities? Which programs or forces would he cut? Would he tackle the Pentagon’s large “back office” over resistance from the service chiefs? Would he favor or oppose using the Overseas Contingency Operations budget to fund base requirements, as has been done for the past several years?

Let’s hope that the senators of the Armed Services Committee have enough backbone to ask these tough questions. And let’s hope that James Mattis has enough backbone to disagree with Trump, when his expertise and experience in military matters requires airing a difference in opinion. I don’t believe that this recently retired general should be secretary of defense. But if he is, good luck, Mr. Secretary, when push comes to shove in the Situation Room.

Photo credit: Sen. Kirsten Gellibrand (D-NY) meets with retired General James Mattis on January 4. AARON P. BERNSTEIN/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security.

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