Shadow Government

Can Mattis Succeed Where His Predecessors Have Failed?

The 2018 National Defense Strategy has its priorities straight. But budgetary challenges could get in the way.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis inspects honor guards during a visit to Jakarta on Jan. 23. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis inspects honor guards during a visit to Jakarta on Jan. 23. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis personally rolled out the U.S. government’s new National Defense Strategy in a speech last week, signaling his intellectual and bureaucratic ownership of the document. This is a good thing, and as one might expect from the so-called warrior monk, the strategy is a lot more about sensible approaches to a very complicated world — including a very strong emphasis on diplomacy and alliances — than it is about President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

In a break from previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews, at the direction of Congress, the 2018 National Defense Strategy is actually a classified document — so much of what it tells the Defense Department to do will remain secret. What the unclassified summary does reveal is a clear prioritization of Russia and China as strategic competitors, over terrorism, as the primary concern for U.S. national security. As National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said more than a few times recently, “geopolitics are back.”

In reality, looking past the document’s bumper-sticker slogan — “compete, deter, and win” — much of what the report outlines and many of its key concepts are very similar to priorities and initiatives that the Defense Department has already been pursuing for the last few years. As early as 2014, the department began emphasizing the need to focus on capability over capacity. In other words, given the challenges posed by Russia, China, Iran, and others, it is more important to modernize key war-fighting capabilities than it is to invest in growing the sheer numbers of military personnel and weapons platforms. The kinds of key capabilities in which the new strategy says the department will invest are precisely the types that it was pursuing energetically as part of the Third Offset Strategy led by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. When it comes to alliances and partners, the new National Defense Strategy prioritizes the Indo-Pacific, NATO, and the Middle East, which feels familiar to anyone who has read the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance or the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. Whether one agrees that the Defense Department is emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, as the document asserts, it is true that the U.S. military’s competitive advantage has been eroding, and the strategic approach the document lays out is largely a sensible road map to halt that erosion.

The real challenge for Mattis’s Defense Department is whether it can get the budget resources it needs to achieve the secretary’s intent to “pursue urgent change at significant scale.” The Trump administration has not yet released its 2019 budget request, but paying for what the department outlines in the National Defense Strategy would not come cheap, and would require getting Congress to make a deal to lift the budget caps in place under the Budget Control Act. This would be no small task, particularly in the current hyperpartisan political environment.

Finally, like its predecessors, the strategy describes reforming the Defense Department as one of the pillars of its approach. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used to talk about the “river of money” running underneath the Pentagon that he wished he could find a way to control. The search for efficiencies and savings through reformed business practices has been a Holy Grail for many a secretary of defense. The key question for Mattis and his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, is what they think they can do differently to succeed where so many have failed. Congress has a key role to play here. The Defense Department can only close its excess bases, offer tailored and modern benefits programs to its military personnel, and buy the weapons systems it needs, but no more than that, with cooperation from Congress. So far, that cooperation has been elusive.

The new strategy should earn high marks for diagnosing the strategic problem, setting priorities, and describing a discrete set of ways to pursue U.S. national security objectives. Defense strategy experts who have seen the classified version say it makes the hard choices and has the detail to add teeth to what is described in the public summary. But to truly succeed, Mattis will need to make breakthroughs with Congress on the defense budget and regain the authority to fully manage his department — two tasks that have eluded a number of his predecessors.

Christine Wormuth is director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council. She served as the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2014 to 2016. Twitter: @cwormuth

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