Experts to Senate: Mattis deserves historic waiver to be defense secretary
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2017
WASHINGTON — Expert witnesses on Tuesday advised the Senate to grant Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis an historic legal waiver so he can be considered as Donald Trump’s defense secretary.
The retired Marine general’s resume and character — as well as concerns over the incoming president — justify giving Mattis a one-time exemption from federal law, which requires any defense secretary to be at least seven years out of military service, according to a Johns Hopkins University professor and a program director at the nonpartisan Center For Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.
Mattis, 66, has been retired since 2013 and would be the first general in 70 years to be exempted from the law designed to maintain civilian control of the military. The Senate Armed Services Committee called in the expert witnesses as Congress weighs whether to approve the unusual waiver and clear the way for Mattis’ confirmation when Trump takes office Jan. 20.
“I’ve known Gen. Mattis for well over a decade. He is probably the most widely read and reflective officer I know,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “More importantly than that, he’s shown himself to be a man of exceptional character judgment and exemplary commitment to legal and constitution norms.”
Mattis is known as a kind of warrior monk and gained a dedicated following among the rank and file military during a four-decade career that included commanding infantry troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cohen, who was a Trump critic among concerned national security experts during the election, said Mattis could moderate some of the coming president’s tough stances, such as his support of waterboarding and torture of terrorists and targeting of their families.
“That is outrageous and illegal and wildly immoral and I think a Secretary Mattis would refuse to comply with that order,” he said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee could vote on the waiver Thursday when Mattis comes to testify in his confirmation hearing. Republicans hope to wrap up his confirmation so he can be quickly put in charge of the Pentagon this month.
The House also could begin considering a waiver this week.
Mattis would be the first military officer to receive a waiver since Gen. George C. Marshall, who served as the Army chief of staff during World War II and was an architect of the post-war recovery of Europe.
“I am convinced that [Mattis] passes the standards set by Marshall,” said Kathleen Hicks, the director of the international security program at the center.
But Hicks and Cohen warned the exception for Mattis should be a one-time deal.
Hicks said Trump’s contention in December that it is time for a strong general like Mattis to lead the Pentagon is a dangerous mentality that could lead the country away from a bedrock ideal of civilian leadership.
“It should never be considered ‘time’ for a general to fill the senior most civilian position in the chain of command,” she said.
Mattis remains widely popular among troops and lawmakers. But Democrats, who are mounting opposition to Trump nominations, have zeroed in on the issue of civilian control and Mattis’ recent retirement, though any opposition was unlikely to derail his confirmation.
“The restriction was enacted into law for good reason, and Gen. George Marshall is the only retired military officer to receive this exception,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “I personally believe such waivers would destroy the principle that is so critical to an essential tenet of our civil and military relations.”
Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, testifies as an expert witness during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, as members considered a proposal to pass a waiver allowing recently retired Gen. James Mattis to become the next secretary of defense.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES