Experts Advise Senate to Grant Mattis Waiver

Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tesgtifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 10, 2016. Screenshot photo.

Experts on US military-civilian relations recommended to the Senate Tuesday that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis be granted a waiver permitting his confirmation as Secretary of Defense. Federal law mandates a person must be separated from Active Duty for seven years before holding the top civilian military job. The expert testimony was offered at a special hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which met to review civilian control of the military ahead of Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, agreed that the Senate should allow Mattis to follow Gen. George Marshall as only the second nominee to receive an exception to the law. However, Marshall was granted the waiver in 1950 only with the clear recommendation that Congress affirm the underlying principle while yielding to what Hicks called “a generationally exceptional” case.

While praising Mattis, Hicks and Cohen each criticized the incoming Trump Administration in their advice to the Senate. Hicks argued that her support of Mattis was based on “the qualities of the specific nominee,” including his “clear commitment to, and embodiment of, the principle of civilian control of the military.” She forcefully rejected President-elect Donald Trump’s assertion to the New York Times that it was “time for a general” to run the Pentagon. “It should never be time for a general,” she said. “Dangerous times require experience,” not military service.

Cohen was even stronger in his testimony. His justification of Mattis’ waiver drew comparisons between 2017 and the early Cold War climate of 1950, saying “ours is a very dangerous world that can tip into crisis with very little notice.” He went on to say that he has “concerns about the incoming administration” that he hopes Mattis could alleviate. Cohen said he feels a “sense of alarm” about “the judgments and dispositions of the incoming White House team,” and that “there is no question in my mind that a Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening.”

Members of the committee largely agreed with the experts. Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that he would “fully support” the waiver and Mattis’ nomination only because he had shown himself to be “an officer who best understands military-civilian relations,” and that “one could only hope” that President Trump will be willing to listen to such a Secretary. McCain also played down the significance of military experience as preparation for the Pentagon’s top civilian job. “Some of the challenges we face in the military today,” he said, “particularly the much-needed reforms in acquisition and other areas—require talents that have nothing to do with the military.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, while not indicating whether he would ultimately support Mattis’ nomination, said that retired general’s recent military service should not be a “disqualifying factor.” He insisted that such an exception must be truly exceptional, however, saying that repeated exceptions “would destroy the principle that is so critical to the central tenant of our civil-military relations.”

Reed also expressed concern over “the number of retired senior military officers chosen to lead agencies critical to our national security,” saying that “diversity of opinion” is crucial for developing effective military policy in a volatile era.

The experts echoed the senators’ sentiments in question and answer. Hicks said that another such exception should not be granted by Congress for more than 20 years. Cohen insisted that civil-military relations is “not a bargain.” He said, “the principle is civilian control of the military, full stop.”