The American people should be encouraged at the nominations of Marine Generals James Mattis and John Kelly to serve in President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I offer a structural observation: the selections of James Mattis and John Kelly forecast a restoration of the cabinet secretary’s true role as an influential counselor who has the president’s ear.
Senate committees will thoroughly vet them; the scrutiny will be rigorous. But there is little doubt both Marines represent the type of leader our nation needs in this chapter of her history.
Firstly, James Mattis and John Kelly are forthright, honest leaders. Their candid assessments and unvarnished counsel distinguished them before the Senate Armed Services Committee and earned them the esteem of its members. They upheld the sacred commitment that all senior military leaders must make when testifying before Congress: to give their personal views when asked, even if it differs from that of the administration.
While famous for their straightforward advice, these men also ably exercised weighty diplomatic responsibilities. As war-zone commanders, they led multinational forces, as much a diplomatic challenge as a military one. At negotiating tables with friends and foes alike, they were adept advocates of American interests. This is a heavy burden. It often requires a delicate touch.
Both men were combatant commanders, overseeing U.S. forces in world regions riddled with unrest: Mattis in Middle Eastern deserts, Kelly in Central and South American jungles. Both represented our nation to foreign leaders and senior military officials and, by all accounts, with formidable skill. They are warriors and diplomats. Frankness and tactfulness are hardly mutually exclusive, but leaders with both are hard to find.
Candor, and the courage to clearly state the threats we face, is sorely needed to bring our national security discourse closer to reality. U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should not be determined by a political calendar. Their leaders should not continuously redefine the term “combat” to make their dangerous missions in Iraq or Afghanistan appear as though they are something else.
We have not made America safer by fostering false notions or substituting slogans for fact-based determinations; we have only succeeded in muddying further already complicated issues and reducing our ability to appropriately respond. To reverse this trend, we need clear-eyed leaders who will soberly assess threats and craft strategic responses. Generals Mattis and Kelly possess the qualities and experience to do so.
Given our national security challenges, it is reassuring to know these generals have experience tailored to the problems they will face, should the Senate confirm them.
As a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Mattis has deep experience with the region’s complexities and U.S. operations in it. He will also take the helm of a Defense Department suffering from a readiness crisis. Readiness is central to the Marine Corps’ “First to Fight” identity. While readiness may not have a “constituency,” as retired Lt. General David Deptula has noted, in Mattis, a career Marine officer, it will have a powerful advocate.
General Kelly, meanwhile, would bring broad knowledge of the Central and South American security landscape to the Department of Homeland Security. His understanding of the region’s criminal networks, and his experience during 2014’s heartbreaking surge of unaccompanied migrant children to the United States, gives him a comprehensive picture of the symptoms and causes of illegal immigration.
Over decades of service, both men have witnessed the swelling of the White House National Security Council (NSC). Mattis and Kelly have experienced years of increasingly centralized national security decision-making in insular White House staffs. They know its consequences. This perspective is immensely valuable.
The NSC’s growing role as a policymaking, as opposed to a policy-coordinating, body is a problem that certainly predates the Obama administration. But it has risen to such significant levels that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed to limit the NSC’s size in the recently passed FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
Further, federal agencies not only carry out policy, they are also deep pools of subject matter experts. As heads of these agencies, cabinet secretaries can offer a president unique advice on the wisdom of a particular policy and the ease or difficulty of its execution. A devolution of authority from the NSC back to the cabinet secretaries is in the nation’s interest.
As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said, “unpredictable instability has become the new normal.” In this world, America needs battle-tested truth tellers. Generals James Mattis and John Kelly have proven themselves as such in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee before. I look forward to hearing more of their insights throughout a vigorous confirmation process.