Elephants in the Room

Mattis Was the Best Secretary of Defense Trump Could Have Had

In grading him, we must adjust for the difficulty of the assignment.

U.S. President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis attend a cabinet meeting in the White House on March 8, 2018. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis attend a cabinet meeting in the White House on March 8, 2018. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

If you ever wondered what civil-military specialists who like and respect each other bicker about at the bar, you are about to find out.

Did James Mattis, who served as U.S. secretary of defense from January 2017 through December 2018, leave a positive or a negative legacy for civil-military relations?

Jim Golby, one of the finest of the next generation of experts in this area, raises this important question in a thoughtful essay for War on the Rocks. The essay tabulates a list of pros and cons but ultimately comes down with a negative verdict: “Mattis didn’t cause our civil-military problems, but they did get worse on his watch.” Golby praises Mattis for preventing worse things from happening and concedes that it is “possible” that “America is better off overall than it would have been under any of the other nominees considered.” But that is not good enough, in Golby’s view.

Golby is something of civil-military phenomenon himself. He is an active-duty lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who holds a doctorate in political science from Stanford University, where he wrote a fine dissertation on contemporary U.S. civil-military relations. Even though he is a relatively junior officer, he has served near the pinnacle of political-military policymaking as an advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also to both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence on the National Security Council staff. (Full disclosure: He and I have co-authored several empirical studies of public opinion and the military, including a chapter in a book co-edited by Mattis before he joined the Trump administration, and we are working on another major project right now.)

Golby’s assessment of Mattis is careful, heavily qualified, and measured—a must-read for students of civil-military relations. But in the end, I think it goes too far in its critique and obscures the fundamental judgment: that Mattis may have been the best secretary of defense the Trump administration could have had.

Mattis was not perfect. No secretary of defense is. Even in normal administrations, this is a difficult job. One book on the subject made the point clearly in the title: Charles A. Stevenson’s SECDEF: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense. It is easy to identify slip-ups, dubious decisions, and adverse developments during the tenures of even the most successful people to hold the position. And there is not usually any harm in identifying these as a way of educating future leaders.

For instance, I have pointed out ways in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the most heralded secretary of defense of the post-9/11 era, could have handled certain matters better. In an interview with NPR, Gates complained about generals who spoke out too much, but in his memoir he repeatedly described standing silently by while something bad was happening in a meeting. I argued that we cannot ask generals to keep quiet about policy matters in public unless the senior civilians themselves speak up on those matters in private. Gates, a very good secretary of defense, could have been even better with a tweak here and there. This is a very useful teaching point for senior civilian and military leaders who are wrestling with internalizing best practices in civil-military relations.

However, there is a reasonable counterpoint to my critique—and it is relevant to Golby’s critique as well. It is easy for me to say that Gates should have spoken up more in those private meetings, but what if he had and it had gone poorly, and his capacity to be effective in other matters was gravely compromised?

One of those silent moments, according to Gates, came when then-President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned that they had let partisan calculations of how best to position themselves for the 2008 election determine their public opposition to the Iraq surge. This was a shocking revelation, yet Gates reports he heard it and said nothing. I would have preferred that he had used the opportunity to point out how pernicious such a stance had been for American civil-military relations and for the national interest. But I have been in enough meetings with a president to know that it would have been a very costly thing for Gates to do in the moment. It would have angered both Obama and Clinton and put a great strain on the partnership they were forging. I think Gates had enough political capital that he should have risked it, but I understand why he did not.

Some of Golby’s criticism of Mattis fits this same pattern. Golby faults Mattis for not critiquing President Donald Trump more forcefully when Trump transgressed civil-military norms: for instance, when Trump held a highly partisan signing ceremony in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, or when the president tweeted out a policy change on transgender military members without having consulted with the service chiefs. Golby is careful to note that we do not know whether Mattis raised these and countless other matters privately with Trump, which would have been the most proper course of action. We only know that he did not do so publicly, which would have been a highly unusual rebuke even in normal times. Golby also notes that had Mattis gone public he would have likely received no support from the political base Trump listens to—which would have left the defense isolated and exposed—and that raising the issue would likely not have changed Trump’s behavior, while at the same time increasing considerably the risk that Trump would have fired or marginalized Mattis even sooner. At the end of a tortuous paragraph in which Golby makes all of these allowances, which have the logical effect of exonerating Mattis—or at the very least, of granting Mattis the benefit of a generous grading curve—Golby concludes with a rather tepid lament: Mattis should have called out the president on this point in a parting shot in his resignation letter.

Likewise, Golby faults Mattis for not embracing the traditional role of the secretary of defense as a key communicator and explainer to the American people about defense policy. Golby argues that the secretary of defense should have been the “dash” in “civil-military,” reaching out across the divide and bridging the gap with greater transparency about policy. Instead, Mattis laid quite low, refusing to do the traditional press shows and having very little press availability. As a consequence, Golby writes, “there was no one explaining to the American people why servicemembers were continuing to kill people or die in their name.”

This is a fair critique in normal times, and I certainly faulted Obama for not doing more outreach to bolster public support for the killing and dying he had authorized. But Golby could do more to see the matter from Mattis’s point of view. Why was Mattis so reticent? Later in that section, Golby criticizes Mattis for hinting at a claim of moral superiority, looking down on civilian society. Mattis may have such a sense and, if so, that is indeed lamentable. But I do not think that is why Mattis avoided the press. It is far more likely that Mattis laid low so as to avoid getting crosswise with his boss. Trump was quick to take offense at underlings who were insufficiently fawning in their press availabilities. It would have been far worse for civil-military relations for Mattis to satisfy the president with such displays of sycophancy. If Mattis had joined the weekly gyre of explaining flip-flopping policy tweets, he might have developed low credibility akin to that of Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Avoiding that friction and preserving his credibility, at the expense of somewhat less transparency, is a reasonable trade-off given the time and circumstances in which Mattis served.

Golby is correct that Mattis was in a very difficult spot as a recently retired military officer whose first name was “General,” yet who also was supposed to personify the civilian in civilian control of the military. It would have been better if everyone understood clearly that he was a civilian political appointee and he had shed the uniform once and for all. It was a useful teaching point on Mattis’s first day in office when he did not return Gen. Joseph Dunford’s welcoming salute on the steps of the Pentagon, thus dramatizing his transformation from officer to civilian. I suspect he winced when Trump insisted on calling him “general.” But it would have been pedantic to correct the president in the moment, and it likely would have backfired. Having a retired four-star general personify civilian control blurred the civil-military lines in ways that all of us, including those of us who supported Mattis’s unusual appointment, acknowledge was unfortunate. But I do not see what Mattis could have done that would have changed this dynamic in fundamental and positive ways, given who his boss was. That has to be the pragmatic standard against which he is measured.

Golby may be on stronger ground when he faults Mattis for not doing more to restore the imbalance in power within the Department of Defense between the uniformed military and civilians. This imbalance grew to troubling levels under the Obama administration and got worse in the power vacuum that emerged early in the Trump administration. Some of this must be laid at doors above Mattis’s paygrade. The Trump campaign bears much of the blame for failing to build a cadre of qualified talent and then for failing to have a competent transition. To be fair, perhaps the so-called #NeverTrumpers, myself included, who signed letters of protest against candidate Trump also share some of the blame, because we made it harder for the Trump team to assemble talent.

Perhaps Mattis could have done more with the hand he was dealt. Arguably, he squandered precious political capital in a series of Pyrrhic victories and defeats trying to make senior appointments that were doomed given the partisan climate in Washington. And when he finally did have his civilian team in place, perhaps he could have done more to empower them, compared to their military counterparts. He did do more than he gets credit for in the public commentary, however. For instance, he added the undersecretary for policy to the so-called “big four” meeting of the secretary of defense, deputy secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a powerful signal in a rank-conscious hierarchy. He also brought country desk officers and other personnel from the Office of the Secretary of Defense into meetings with foreign dignitaries, thus empowering them. And he brought White House and Office of the Secretary of Defense staff, more than Joint Staff representatives, on the plane with him on foreign trips to further endow them with the most powerful currency in the bureaucracy: access to the principal. But these measures may not have been enough to compensate for the severe imbalance he inherited and for the blinding optics of a “team of Marines” at the top—the close, decades-long personal relationship that bound together Mattis, Dunford, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, and senior Joint Staff officer Kenneth McKenzie—in a town where appearances can dominate reality.

This problem of empowering the civilian side is likely to get worse before it gets better. The next secretary of defense will have an even harder time boosting morale in the Office of the Secretary of Defense than Mattis had. And the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is likely to have more access to Trump than Dunford has had, thus advantaging the uniformed side ahead of the civilians to an even greater extent.

Golby credits Mattis with a major achievement: On Mattis’s watch, there was no grave national security or civil-military crisis. Most outside observers, myself included, feared that Trump’s erratic behavior would trigger myriad crises along multiple dimensions. That still could happen, of course, but it is worth listing the kinds of blunders that were in play but did not happen: arbitrary withdrawal from NATO, arbitrary abandonment of South Korea, a war on the Korean Peninsula triggered by the premature withdrawal of U.S. civilian personnel, regular Army troops instructed to shoot refugees trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, war with Iran, total withdrawal from Afghanistan without a political deal, families of Islamic State combatants tortured, Syrian oil fields seized and nationalized as U.S. property, and so on.

Here is where civil-military norms and best practices come crashing in to the reality of our current president. If it is generally accepted that presidents have a “right to be wrong,” was Mattis himself undermining the president and thereby also civil-military relations by acting as a restraint—not letting him commit his wrongs? Golby does not grasp this nettle firmly, but he does rightly warn that it is bad for the country to look to generals to be “adults in the room.” He also explicitly calls out Mattis for not being responsive to White House demands for military options to deal with foreign-policy problems and for trying to box the president in during policy reviews.

I agree with Golby that the Department of Defense should be responsive to the White House for options and should not try to box presidents in. I would note that there are few well-documented cases of Mattis (or anyone else in the Department of Defense) actively working to undermine Trump’s policies after a decision had been formally and properly delivered through official channels (though I concede that we are likely to find examples once the historical record is fully available, since we can find them in previous administrations). There is plenty of evidence of the Defense Department raising concerns about decisions before they were made. And there is plenty of evidence of the department dragging its heels in response to stray tweets and offhand remarks. In this respect, the difficulty that the Trump team has experienced in turning presidential whims into policy wins is more normal than not.

And this normalcy may raise an even more intriguing argument that Golby does not make explicitly in his piece but that I have heard from other experts: What if Mattis’s real fault was in successfully tempering Trump’s worst excesses just enough to make the president seem far more normal than he is and, as a result, enabling longer-term changes to the country and the Republican Party that will hurt the country (and civil-military relations) for the long run? What if future generals believe it is acceptable or even expected that they should be the “adults in the room” and minimize the damage of transgressive policies? Would the United States have been better off with a civilian secretary of defense who flamed out early in his tenure in a blaze of righteous indignant protest, denouncing what they considered to be the president’s deficiencies? I do not think that would have best served U.S. national interests, and I believe that any salutary benefit in terms of reinforcing civil-military norms would have been quickly eclipsed by the spiral of partisan action and reaction such a dramatic move would have catalyzed.

This is at the heart of the questions that Mattis had to wrestle with every day but that Golby’s critique only glancingly addresses: What is best civil-military practice in an administration in which the president sees his political task as the defilement of taboos and professional norms? What makes the U.S. Constitution functional on a day-to-day basis are the institutions and norms that set limits to the “invitation to struggle” hard-wired into the republic. How best to preserve the ones associated with civil-military relations for successive generations when the electorate chose a president who promised he would not be shackled by those very constraints? For that matter, how much should public servants weigh their own effectiveness against the likely consequences of their own departures?

In sum, how normatively should we treat Mattis and his behavior for future instruction on best practices? Perhaps the things you need to do to keep your plane aloft when the cockpit is on fire are not the things you would teach pilots to do during regular flight operations.

Here I suspect Golby and I would come to a hearty agreement: The last two years should not become the new normal in U.S. civil-military relations. The next administration will have repair work to do. (The Trump administration inherited deferred maintenance in the civil-military arena that it has been unable to attend to, so the job has only gotten tougher.) Mattis made a number of compromises and trade-offs that future secretaries of defense should not have to make. But in grading him, we must adjust for the difficulty of the assignment. Otherwise, I fear we are guaranteeing that only people much less capable than Mattis will be willing to serve the country in these demanding posts.

There is little likelihood that Trump could have appointed someone who would have faced key civil-military challenges better than Mattis did. There is a decent risk that things will get worse in the coming years. Mattis, for all his imperfections, was the best thing that happened to civil-military relations in the Trump administration.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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