Secretary of Defence

Give the job to James Mattis, say two military policy experts

PROFESSOR ELIOT COHEN
PROFESSOR ELIOT COHEN

WASHINGTON • The prospects for General James Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defence in the Trump administration have received a boost, with two experts in military policy recommending that an exception be made so that the retired four-star general can assume the top Pentagon post.

Military officers are barred by law from serving as defence secretary unless they have been retired for seven years. Gen Mattis left military active duty in May 2013.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee and has supported Gen Mattis' nomination, convened a hearing on Tuesday that was intended to give committee members, particularly Democrats, a chance to explore the issue of civilian control of the military - including the legislation that would be needed to enable Gen Mattis to take the Defence Department job.

Professor Eliot Cohen from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who served as the State Department counsellor during the George W. Bush administration, said at the hearing that "the principle of civilian control of the military is precious".

But Prof Cohen, who signed a letter during the campaign arguing that Mr Donald Trump was unfit to serve as commander-in-chief, argued that an exception should be made because Gen Mattis was a person of integrity, had important experience at a time when the Pentagon has to contend with multiple threats, and might dissuade the administration from acting recklessly.

"A Secretary Mattis would be a stabilising and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous and illegal things from happening, and over time helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction," he said.

STABILISING, MODERATING FORCE

A Secretary Mattis would be a stabilising and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous and illegal things from happening, and over time helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction.

PROFESSOR ELIOT COHEN, from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who served as the State Department counsellor during the administration of President George W. Bush, on making a legal exception for Gen Mattis. 

Dr Kathleen Hicks, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the hearing that it was appropriate to make an exception for Gen Mattis, and praised his character and expertise. But she stressed that this was the sort of exception that should be made only rarely.

"I assess the state of US civil-military relations to be strong enough to withstand any risk such a once- in-two-generations exception, on its own, could pose," she said.

The only previous case in which a legal exception was made so that a military officer could become defence secretary was George C. Marshall. Congress passed an amendment in 1950 allowing him to become the Pentagon chief.

After the hearing, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said she still had "grave concerns" about allowing Gen Mattis to become defence secretary. But there was little opposition from other members of the panel.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Give the job to James Mattis, say two military policy experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe