Mattis Had a Mixed Record
An honorable public servant leaves behind a messy legacy.
In hindsight, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was doomed from the beginning. As he uncomfortably watched President Donald Trump use the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes” as the backdrop for signing a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries in the administration’s first week—a policy Mattis had previously opposed publicly—this obviously was not going to end well.
Despite Mattis’s attempts to establish a warm relationship with Trump, he never really fit in. A president who thinks in stereotypes thought he was getting a “Mad Dog” Marine out of Full Metal Jacket and had little patience for Mattis’s cool analysis and sober thinking. Trump likely also grew tired of all the positive press Mattis attracted, almost always at his own expense.
But their differences went a long way beyond just image. For example, when Mattis rolled out the National Defense Strategy last January in a thoughtful speech at Johns Hopkins University, he talked about the importance of allies, the primacy of diplomacy, the need for a strong State Department, and his commitment to making the Defense Department more efficient, modern, and capable. He outlined a cleareyed approach toward geopolitical threats such as China and Russia. Having been in the audience, I recall thinking it was a good speech, and one that Trump’s presidential rival Hillary Clinton’s secretary of defense—maybe even someone like Mattis—could have delivered. That was his problem. He spoke as though he didn’t work for Trump.
So when Trump said in October on 60 Minutes that Mattis was “kind of a Democrat,” he was pretty much correct. I don’t think Mattis formally has a party affiliation, but the policies he has pursued and defended during his two years in office have far more in common with the mainstream of the Democratic Party than anything championed by Trumpist Republicans. The worldview outlined in his extraordinary resignation letter is identical to that of Clinton or former President Barack Obama.
Yet for all his strengths—and I share the near-universal concern about what his departure means for the future—Mattis’s tenure was not flawless. In fact, he encouraged some habits in the Pentagon that don’t augur well for future administrations or civil-military relations. Perhaps this was the cost of doing business to block some of the more outrageous Trump ideas—the very moves Mattis is now being heralded for. But they are costs nevertheless.
First, the Mattis era perpetuated a bad precedent for how the Pentagon should engage with the White House. The decision-making process between presidents and the Department of Defense is always characterized by healthy tension, where the White House is asking for something and the military resists, or vice versa. Gamesmanship and sharp elbows on either side of the Potomac River are nothing new, as I experienced firsthand during the Obama administration.
But in talking with Trump officials on both sides, I have been struck by how things have been taken to a new level, with the Pentagon actively blocking directives, withholding information, and slow-walking decisions. By all accounts this was worse when H.R. McMaster was Trump’s national security advisor, because he would dutifully take the hit when Trump would rage over why things weren’t getting done. This helps explain why Mattis’s stock plummeted when John Bolton arrived at the White House, because the new national security advisor doesn’t hesitate to throw the Pentagon under the bus when the president is unhappy.
To be sure, these are abnormal times, and the United States has been lucky that Mattis is who he is. But for many rising military officers, watching how the Pentagon has played this game—in effect, defying and undermining the person who got elected—is now seen as okay. With Trump in the White House, this might have been a good thing. Perhaps the benevolent “deep state” prevented the worst possibilities. But the circumstances could be very different in the future.
The downward spiral in White House-Pentagon relations relates to another worrying civil-military dynamic of the Mattis tenure: how policy decisions get made within the Pentagon. This moment will be remembered for the dominance of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over civilians. To be fair, this development is somewhat secular, as the Joint Staff gained the upper hand in the latter part of the Obama administration. Yet the trend has only accelerated. Right now, it is hard to think of many policy areas where civilian officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense drive things.
There are a variety of reasons for this. Many key civilian policy positions remain vacant or were filled by officials who didn’t stay long. Mattis was a recently retired flag officer who fell back on familiar routines and ran his office as though he were a combatant commander. And one of Mattis’s closest colleagues in the Marines, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and despite his prodigious talents, under Dunford relations between the Joint Staff and their civilian counterparts has gotten worse), while another close Marine friend, John Kelly, is the outgoing White House chief of staff.
This was a relief when Mattis and Dunford were in charge. But this dynamic of military dominance will be a hard one for the next defense secretary to break.
Which leaves the third legacy of Mattis’s tenure, which is perhaps the most difficult to grapple with: that his essential skill, worldview, and credibility also helped too many people to think that Trump wouldn’t be so bad. As long as Mattis was there, many people believed everything would be fine—Trump could be tamed, shamed, or redirected from his worst instincts. That proved true to a point. But Mattis became an enabler, whether by helping to justify some of Trump’s worst policies (such as deploying the military on the U.S. border with Mexico), or by giving false comfort and allowing too many to look the other way from seeing Trump for who he is. With two months left in office, Mattis has the chance to undo some of this. His resignation letter was a good start.
Mattis deserves gratitude for projecting an image of America’s role in the world that is optimistic, confident, and humane, and for promoting policies that set the United States up for success. His example of service is to be admired. Yet future administrations will also have to wrestle with the more complicated aspects of his legacy, including that in the end, his efforts only delayed the reckoning.