Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis will begin the Senate confirmation process Thursday to become the next defense secretary amid high expectations that he can make the military great again while also serving as a brake on the new commander-in-chief.
Mattis will go before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee as only the second defense secretary nominee since 1947 who will not know for sure whether he will be legally permitted to take the job. Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, was the first defense secretary granted a waiver in 1950.
Current law bars military officers from taking cabinet posts until they have been retired for at least seven years in the interests of maintaining civilian control of the military.
Mattis retired in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command and would need a waiver from both the Senate and House to take the Pentagon post. He has widespread support in Congress, and the waiver was considered a formality -- until Wednesday.
Mattis had agreed to testify on the waiver Thursday afternoon before the House Armed Services Committee following his Senate hearing, but his appearance was abruptly canceled Wednesday, reportedly by the transition team for President-elect Donald Trump for reasons yet to be specified.
House Democrats immediately threatened to vote "No" as a bloc on the waiver. "This is a major issue affecting civilian control of the military, and Congress has a responsibility to consider it carefully with hearings and a mark-up," said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat and the ranking HASC member.
"The idea is that if we don't hear from him, we aren't voting for him," Smith said, but the Trump transition team brushed off the threat.
A spokeswoman for the transition team, Alleigh Marre, said in a statement that Mattis is focused on "following the constitutional process for confirmation" and testifying before the Senate.
"If confirmed, he looks forward to working with both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, which play critical roles in supporting our forces and ensuring civilian control of the military," Marre said, The Washington Post reported.
The 66-year-old Mattis, who led a battalion in the Persian Gulf War, a task force in Afghanistan, and the 1st Marine Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, will go before a SASC panel stacked with enthusiastic supporters and with the even more enthusiastic support of Trump, who refers to him as "Mad Dog" and calls him "the real deal."
However, Mattis has made plain, now and in past statements, that he is at odds with Trump on a range of issues:
- Trump said during the campaign that "torture works" in the interrogation of terror suspects. Mattis has told Trump that it doesn't and is against the law.
- Trump has railed against cost overruns for Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and said he would consider replacing it with F-18E/F Super Hornets. Mattis has backed the F-35.
- Trump has supported Israeli settlements on the West Bank and questioned the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mattis has said that Israel risks becoming an "apartheid" state without the two-state solution.
- Trump pledged during the campaign to renegotiate or scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to rein in Iran's nuclear programs. Mattis has said that Iran's "malign influence" must be checked, but the deal should stay in place.
Mattis' ability to act as a check on Trump was a focus of the committee hearing Tuesday on the waiver. The panel is expected to take a vote Thursday on the waiver for Mattis following the hearing on his qualifications.
At the waiver hearing Tuesday, Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, said he backed the waiver and hoped that Mattis as defense secretary would serve as a brake on Trump.
"In such a setting, 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," Cohen said. Over time, Mattis could work with Trump "to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction."
Sen. John McCain, the committee chairman and an Arizona Republican, interjected: "One can only hope."
In his various posts in the military, and in retirement, Mattis has testified frequently before the House and Senate with a candor rarely shown by many of his colleagues in uniform.
His previous statements on Iran, Russia, China, counter-terrorism, women in combat, sexual assault, and Trump's pledges to boost the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, are expected to figure prominently in the questioning.
Senators are also expected to focus on the perennial topic of reforming the Pentagon's cumbersome and costly acquisition process for new weapons systems. Senators have been known to excel at lambasting "waste, fraud and abuse" in acquisitions -- unless the particular weapons system in question is made in their state.
The Center for a New American Security drew up a list of potential questions for Mattis that includes:
- What do you believe are the necessary political complements to our military effort to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
- What is your view of President Vladimir Putin, his strategic calculus, and the threat Russia poses to Europe and the West
- What role should the U.S. military play, if any, in dealing with this broader challenge from China in the South China Sea?
- Do you still believe that it is not possible at this moment to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal?
- Will you maintain the current policy opening all military occupational specialties to women or do you intend to roll it back?
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.