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.

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