April 04, 2017

Tips for Mattis on Navigating Swampland

By Shawn Brimley

When then President-elect Donald Trump announced that he had chosen Gen. Jim Mattis to lead the Pentagon, there was a collective sigh of relief across the national security establishment. The thinking went that Mattis knows the U.S. military, has the respect of the uniformed and civilian men and women of the Department of Defense, and has a hard-won reputation for integrity and leadership. With a White House full of outsiders and self-described disruptors, we are looking to Mattis for the military professionalism and reliable pragmatism that his decades of service could provide. We here at Agenda SecDef badly want him to succeed.

And while Mattis’ first trips to Asia and Europe were well-received (much better received than Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent trip to Asia), his team have stumbled thus far in navigating the so-called “swamp.” It’s easy to deride Washington, D.C., but for any member of a presidential cabinet, it’s where the boss lives, and where members of Congress exercise oversight and provide the resources that enable the Pentagon to function. If a cabinet secretary alienates a president (and his staff), or members of Congress (and their staffs), life gets pretty tough. Alienate them both simultaneously, and it becomes impossible to be effective. On this score, I worry the trend lines for Mattis are not positive. While Mattis isn’t responsible for the chaos and unpredictability of the Trump White House, in the end only he will be able to ensure that he can navigate the steep contours it has created, and avoid being entrapped in very poor political terrain.

I was concerned, for instance, to read in Politico that members of Congress and their staffs believe that Mattis is “burning through political capital,” and that they are “running out of patience.” The story essentially describes a well-intentioned defense secretary desiring to fill his ranks with the best folks possible — their politics notwithstanding — and running into a firewall of resistance at the White House and on Capitol Hill. This, coupled with a front office staff that has reportedly been quick to alienate key senators and their staffers, makes for a perilous political situation. My own conversations with Pentagon and Hill staffers convince me that these dynamics are more accurate than not.

Read the full article at War on the Rocks.

  • Podcast
    • May 7, 2021
    U.S And 25 Other Nations To Participate In Huge Joint Training Exercise

    Last year the pandemic derailed large-scale war gaming – this year it's back with a vengeance. The U.S. military is taking part in a massive joint training exercise across Eur...

    By Becca Wasser & Jay Price

  • Reports
    • May 6, 2021
    Making Sense of Cents

    Executive Summary This report contextualizes the Biden administration’s discretionary funding request for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in fiscal year (FY) 2022, referr...

    By Stacie Pettyjohn & Becca Wasser

  • Commentary
    • April 28, 2021
    Sharper: The Next 100 Days

    As the administration marks its 100th day in office, what lies ahead?...

    By Anna Pederson & Chris Estep

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • April 21, 2021
    America’s Military Risks Losing Its Edge

    Much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russ...

    By Michèle Flournoy

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia