Assessing the Importance of the New U.S. Secretary of Defense Within the Trump Administration

January 31, 2017
Assessing the Importance of the New U.S. Secretary of Defense Within the Trump Administration
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

On January 20, retired Marine general James Mattis was confirmed as the new United States secretary of defense by the U.S. Senate. His appointment has been cited as potentially among the most important in the new Trump administration. How much influence Mattis will wield within the president’s national security team, however, remains to be seen.  Several factors could prove decisive in determining his authority. These include Mattis’ relationship and personal rapport with President Trump, the retired general’s worldview and ability to mesh with the Trump team’s domestic  political priorities, as well as the evolving nature of decision-making within the President’s inner circle.

Mattis’ confirmation as secretary of defense is exceptional in several respects. He was the first cabinet official to be confirmed by the Senate, along with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. He was also confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Indeed, unlike most of Donald Trump’s appointees, the selection of James Mattis was relatively uncontroversial—that is, with one significant exception. Mattis retired from the U.S. Marine Corps four years ago, in March 2013. This required that Congress waive a legislative ban against officers serving as secretary of defense for seven years after active service. The rule exists to assure “civilian control of the military”—a grounding principle in the United States that puts civilians in charge of defense and foreign policy. In theory, the seven-year window distances a retired officer from ties to the military establishment and allows him fully to inhabit the role and mindset of a civilian.

That many analysts of American civil-military relations favored Mattis’ appointment, despite their otherwise strong adherence to the principle of civilian control of the military, underscores the exceptional nature of the Trump administration. National security professionals have been apprehensive about  the President’s fitness to serve as commander in chief. Prior to the election, several former national security officials who had served in Republican administrations signed letters opposing his candidacy. Some, in turn, expressed relief when Mattis was announced as Trump’s pick as Secretary of Defense. Mattis is favored because he is perceived as straightforward and no-nonsense—someone who will speak his mind, even when what he has to say is unpopular with the new president.

The hope is also that Mattis can provide stabilizing and experienced leadership to the Department of Defense during a potentially tumultuous Trump presidency.  Mattis has already shown some indications he may play such a moderating role. In his first statement as secretary of defense, for example, Mattis signaled support for the beleaguered intelligence community, which Trump has in the past has severely criticized. He has also showed his independence by reportedly pressing for control over key appointments within the Pentagon to ensure they were filled by strong candidates.

Mattis’ appointment is important for several reasons, not least because of the critical role the secretary of defense plays within the national security establishment. Along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is the principal military advisor to the president, the secretary of defense is the president’s key civilian interlocutor on defense issues. The commanders of the U.S. military’s unified combatant commands, who oversee military operations in different regions of the world, answer to the secretary, and in turn the president, in the chain of command.  The secretary of defense also heads the largest executive department in the United States government. Its 2016 budget was nearly $600 billion, which constitutes more than a third of total global defense spending. That budget is also likely to grow significantly as the Trump administration pursues a promised defense buildup.

In principle, Mattis is in a good position to exercise substantial influence within the Trump administration. He has had a long and successful career in the military with a reputation for being a hard-driving war-fighter. Before his retirement, Mattis led United States Central Command, the unified combatant command in charge of overseeing military operations in the Middle East.  Mattis is also known as someone with a capacity for strategic thinking and a storied knowledge of military history. Mattis’ self-confidence and bellicose persona (one he does not publicly embrace) may also win him influence within the administration. His penchant for colorful and sometimes impolitic commentary seems to have already endeared him to the president. One indication of this is Trump’s own statements that he has been swayed by Mattis’ skepticism about the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation and intelligence gathering tool. As Trump puts it, Mattis is the “Real Deal.”

The secretary of defense also has another vital advantage in his relationship with the President. The United States military remains the most esteemed institution in the country, ranking above even religious institutions in Gallup polling. The effort to exploit this popularity may be one reason that Trump appointed several generals for key roles in his administration. Yet, that popularity has a potential downside for Mr. Trump. Overruling Secretary Mattis on security and defense issues might be perceived by some citizens as challenging the judgement of the military, especially given Mattis’ renown as an accomplished Marine general. Mattis in fact may be especially well positioned in this regard to provide a check on the president’s latitude for action. Signs of hesitation or skepticism by Mattis could stymie or at least complicate President Trump’s efforts to embark on ill-conceived military ventures. Conversely, should Mattis endorse a controversial strategy proposed by the president, it could help the administration secure popular support for it.

If Mattis does prove influential, what advice might he be inclined to offer the new president? For one, Mattis is apt to be uncompromising in his assessment of Iran, having called the country, “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” Iran, he has argued, has been a principal beneficiary of the chaos sown by Daesh across the region. While Mattis has expressed skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal, however, he is pragmatic about the consequences of unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement. Rather than tear it up, he has argued that the United States should plan for the potentiality Iran in the future seeks to acquire nuclear arms.

Mattis has also been forceful in calling for a new strategy toward Daesh. He has criticized the use of what he calls “half-measures” by the United States under the Obama administration to confront the entity. He has advocated in favor of a formal vote by Congress authorizing military operations against Daesh (known as an Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF), albeit one that places no constraints on how the military conducts the fight. He will play an important role in forging what is likely to be a more aggressive military approach to regain territory controlled by the militant group in Syria.

Mattis’ preferred strategies seem to diverge from the president’s in other areas. Contrary to Trump’s provocative statements advocating an expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities, Secretary Mattis contends that U.S. policy should be premised on an assessment of the strategic or tactical role of such weapons. Mattis has expressed wariness of China and stressed the need to balance its influence in Asia. But, unlike the president, Secretary Mattis consistently supports the United States’ alliances with Japan and South Korea. Secretary Mattis also views the international world order as a vehicle through which the United States can pursue its security goals, rather than as an obstacle to their attainment, as the president appears to. In a paper he authored during a post-retirement stint at a conservative think-tank, this theme comes through strongly.

Perhaps where Mattis differs most with President Trump is in his views toward Russia. During his confirmation hearing, Mattis was unrelenting in his criticism of Putin’s efforts to undermine NATO and signaled a clear commitment to the alliance. One of his first calls as secretary of defense was to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He has also sought to reassure European defense ministers of the United States’ commitment to their countries’ security. Mattis in this respect falls in line with conventional U.S. policy and what has heretofore been the mainstream view of Russia in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. In contrast, Trump’s conciliatory statements toward Russia are outliers in U.S. politics—at least for now. Views of Russia may be changing within the Republican Party.

Ultimately, how much the secretary will be able to influence Mr. Trump and shape the country’s security and defense strategies depend on a number of factors. Key will be how well Mattis works with key White House staff, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. The latter may prioritize domestic issues, leaving Mattis some room for maneuver in running the Department of Defense and shaping U.S. military strategy and defense policy. When security and defense issues bear on Trump’s capacity to realize his “America First” vision, however, things could get complicated for Mattis. The elevation of Bannon to the “principals committee” on the National Security Council suggests that when domestic political priorities and international goals clash, the former may take precedence. Regardless, Secretary Mattis will have to find a way to speak his mind without being marginalized in Trump’s inner circle. Although the president has stated he wants his cabinet to hold diverse views, Trumps actions and statements suggest he has little tolerance for perceived disloyalty.

If history is any indication, with such strong personalities and differing priorities, the administration’s national security team is apt to have a difficult time coalescing and forging or implementing coherent strategy. Perhaps there is some probability that the unconventional mix of views within the president’s national security team will result in a “revolution” in U.S. grand strategy. More likely, inconsistency and incoherence will prevail. This may frustrate Mattis, who was critical of President Obama for what he contends was a poorly articulated grand strategic vision.

The fact that Trump is inexperienced as a political leader also generates uncertainty about the country’s future positions on national security issues. Trump is the first U.S. president not to have served in the military or government before assuming office. Research shows that when U.S. presidents are inexperienced, their advisors have a major impact on policy outcomes. Yet, which advisor will have influence, over what outcome, will depend significantly on how the president shapes the national security decision-making processes within the White House. Ultimately Mattis’ influence will depend on who Trump seats at the table, and who he chooses to listen to.