I have to dissent from Daniel Larison’s negative view of Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Defense. I consider this the best nomination Trump has made so far.
First of all, we should set the bar in the proper place. Some people who supported Trump were under the impression that he intended to pursue a more restrained and less-interventionist foreign policy. I never believed that. On the other hand, I fully expected Trump to staff his administration with third-rate hacks, has-beens and cranks notable mostly for their loyalty. And he’s done some of that — most alarmingly by choosing Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor.
General Mattis, though, is both a sober, serious man and, crucially, a man who both knows and speaks his own mind. Trump badly needs people like that in his administration. He especially needs them in foreign policy, where his own knowledge base is nugatory and his instincts are incoherent.
Some are concerned about the fact that Mattis is a recently-retired general, and that his selection bodes ill for civil control of the military. In general, I would agree with those concerns. But I would make an exception now. At this point in history, I am acutely concerned about the alienation of the services from their civilian masters. We have been pushing the military incredibly hard on a mission of decreasing comprehensibility. Institutionally, the military needs to know that its civilian leadership understands the toll that has been taken.
There are civilian leaders who could provide that — Jim Webb comes to mind — and there are recently-retired military leaders who probably wouldn’t. But there are few individuals I can think of who would do a distinctly better job of that than Mattis. And at this moment in history, I just think that is more important than whether he’s a good bureaucratic in-fighter or the right guy to wring more efficiencies out of procurement.
Larison has highlighted his concerns about Mattis’s hawkish view of Iran. And it’s fair to call him a hawk. But it’s also fair to call someone like Jim Webb an Iran hawk — after all, he opposed the Iran deal. Heck, Rand Paul opposed the deal; so did Gary Johnson. The key question is not whether Mattis sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran but whether he is going to be actively looking for ways to get into conflict with them, or, worse, advocating policies aimed at regime change. I don’t think he is — and that fact is enormously important, because there will be other people advising Trump who will want to get into such a conflict, including his likely Secretary of State (whoever that turns out to be). Moreover, Mattis has been abundantly clear that the Iran deal is here to stay — something Trump himself seemed to understand earlier in the campaign and then gave up in favor of a cheap applause line. You were never going to get an Iran dove in this cabinet (nor, had she won, in Clinton’s). I feel confident that, relatively speaking, Mattis will be the voice of sanity, and that because of his personality, his voice will be heard more than some other sane voices might.
Finally, there’s this. Which of Trump’s nominees so far seem like the kind of people who one could imagine resigning if they felt that was the only way to preserve their integrity? This is not a trivial question with someone like Trump as President. And which of Trump’s nominees seem like the kind of people that it would be a political problem for Trump to fire? Again, not a trivial question with someone like Trump as President. I can’t think of anyone more likely than Mattis — and other than Attorney General, I can’t think of a more important cabinet position to have someone with that kind of integrity and reputation installed in.
From my perspective, this is a clear win.