Anyone Care About Civilian Control of the Military?

He’s used the call sign “Chaos.” Some people call him “Mad Dog” and others call him “The Warrior Monk.” He spent forty years in the U.S. Marines before retiring in 2013 five months early. He’s got a major bug up his butt about Iran, and now Donald Trump wants to make him our Secretary of Defense. His name is James N. Mattis, and he needs a waiver.

To take the job, Mattis will need Congress to pass legislation to bypass a federal law stating that defense secretaries must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress has granted a similar exemption just once, when Gen. George C. Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950…

…It is unclear whether the legislation required to make Mattis the Pentagon chief will be difficult to obtain from Congress. A 1947 national security law said that a general must wait 10 years from leaving active duty before becoming defense secretary. An exception was granted on a one-time basis for Marshall, with lawmakers saying in special legislation at the time that it was the “sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”

The 10-year rule was in effect between 1947 and 2008. It was then reduced to a 7-year rule. Mattis has currently been a civilian for only three years. The Congress that created the position of Secretary of Defense (supplanting the Secretary of War) in 1947, went out of their way to make sure future generations knew that they did not want any future generals taking the job after Marshall was done implementing his plan.

Donald Trump doesn’t care.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, said Thursday night that she will oppose Mattis becoming Pentagon chief.

“While I deeply respect General Mattis’s service, I will oppose a waiver,” she said. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”

John McCain doesn’t care.

…Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he looks forward to beginning the confirmation process “as soon as possible” in the new year.

“General Mattis has a clear understanding of the many challenges facing the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, and our national security,” McCain said. “America will be fortunate to have General Mattis in its service once again.”

Maybe you don’t care either. But there were reasons why Congress put the rule in place. The country had just spent considerable effort destroying fascism and they felt that civilian control of the military (as well as the State Department) was a vital principle to uphold.

Trump has already selected a retired general as his National Security Advisor, and one who almost certainly could not be confirmed by the Senate to anything. He’s been considering another retired general for the State Department despite the fact that he was convicted of being careless with classified information when he served as Director of Central Intelligence and is currently on probation.

Sen. Gillibrand won’t consider Gen. Mattis for Secretary of Defense because of the principle of civilian control. I’m sure that many other senators will take the some position. But I think the Democrats are more opposed to the idea of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III serving as Attorney General, and I don’t know how much fight they have to spread around. I also don’t know if there are any Republicans who are willing to put principle over party. McCain was one possibility, and he’s clearly not on board. Maybe Rand Paul might take a stand?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.