The Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) is the principal defense policy advisor to the President. Under the direction of the President, the Secretary exercises authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense. The Secretary of Defense is not a Joint Chiefs of Staff on steroids. It’s a policy implementation role, final authority, and principal liaison to the president and politicians. The policy office is ultimately the most important office in the Pentagon, Under Secretary of Defense Policy can guide foreign policy through the SECDEF.
Partnerships and training exercises, a show of force, Policy stance toward places like Ukraine are formed in the Policy Office.
Tradition is the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, while the military runs the Pentagon. The real leadership that affects daily lives is and will always be military service members. It’s misleading to think that the political appointees are crossing the burn. They are not. They’re there as a stopgap. The natural state of the military is one in conflict. Civilian leadership is necessary – because it means that the will of the people via the president have an approval or denial role. The largest part of many appointee positions is to sign things. Literally to sign and authorize things. But the intent is that the Pentagon is in line with the President’s agenda, like it or not. Agencies implement the company of the President, who is voted by the people. The SECDEF gets a voice, but the President and his agenda are at the helm.
President-elect Trump has selected (retired) Four-star General James Mattis as his nominee for Secretary of Defense. He’s a solid pick by most measurements of success. He went on to become a four-star general, which means he found a measure of ultimate success in his military career. He seemed to have built a strong reputation and cultivated a high perception. It’s hard to say without doing a thorough review of his commands and who worked for him to know how effective of a leader he might be. With commanders, it’s hard to say who is effective is the modern army. Officers are seldom relieved and often toe the line to move forward. Units are tasked beyond the point to access and make changes other than to implement what needs to be done.
The trending aspects of Mattis that seem to create the most enthusiasm are the least relevant. Whether or not he is “well read” is not relevant. His affinity to Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” has little or nothing to do with this job and his role before. I am always seeing somewhat obtuse quotes that might have been taken out of context and their origin unknown to me. Such as “have the plan to kill everyone you meet.” There’s no way when he was CENTCOM commander this was running through the back of his head. Equally, it’s unlikely that’s how he interacts with people in his everyday life. The U.S. government does not just kill foreign leaders and unless it’s in a combat zone – it’s not something the Marine general would have any experience. The military does not conduct assassinations. But he is speaking to a ground truth necessary diligence, especially true in Afghanistan, that you can’t let your guard down. These quotes seem jovial and are acceptable in the military. We’ve said far worse. But, ultimately, not appropriate for the SECDEF and also not relevant to his new role.
The office in the Pentagon that sits atop Special Operations is the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, and Low – Intensity Conflict. That office and its responsibilities have just expanded. The Marine Corps is new to Special Operations Forces (SOF). Even culturally they’re slowly filling a role. General Mattis has limited exposure to Special Operations. Mattis last served as the 11th commander of United States Central Command and served concurrently as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. Before that he commanded United States Joint Forces Command and was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, simultaneously. Earlier in his career, he commanded 1 Marine Expeditionary Force and 1st Marine Division. He has 41 years of service.
He has a long career, and it’s good to see that American’s admire that fact. However, his resume proves limited exposure to Special Operations Command. Which, in many ways, just was propelled to a new level. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) underneath SOCOM have become the Avengers. In the Avengers film – Tony Stark refers to them as ‘JSOC.’ I wasn’t in the army for forty years, not even close – but, I know there’s a weird relationship between some marines and infantryman, and SOF. However, it’s undeniable – the nature of war changing and SOF experience matters. How come Michael Vickers did not appear on the list of potential nominees? The National Security Advisor is General Mike Flynn, another SOF veteran and contemporary of the likes of famed General Stanley McChyrstal. For the sake of teamwork between the National Security Council and the Secretary of Defense, would McChrystal not have been a good pick?
To solve problems in the Marine Corps General Mattis rose in isn’t a reality, today. Our numbers have dwindled. It’s not a phenomenon either; Troops levels always diminish after a war. We’re created and deployed as needed. But, today, war has transformed. In the future, it’s likely that regular troops will undertake the traditional Special Forces mission of foreign internal defense, training of host nation troops to secure their country, and the training aspect of Unconventional Warfare. The Special Forces mission, for example, includes an array of activities. Direct Action belongs to Joint Special Operations Command – and even that particular skill set is being branched out to other forces. The entire cookie cutter of war is morphing into a more lean, quiet, and stealthy lethal killing machine.
It’s not a question if General Mattis believes in large-scale open warfare. But does he understand SOCOM, interagency efforts, and the policy moving forward the same as Flynn and Michael Vickers? There are a great many of Generals retired and otherwise – how is that this general has become the nominee. What is an aspirational undercurrent that moved him towards his new role?
These questions are relevant and we ought to know the answers. But there are two core issues that I believe are the most important. What are the specific policy changes and ideas Mattis has to make the Pentagon better than when he left. What Policies that have been implemented under the Obama administration gone awry and must be fixed? Is his rhetoric more oval office strategic level or Pentagon wonkiness? The Pentagon needs the latter – not another talking head. More important, what do SOCOM leaders think of Mattis? Tampa is a becoming a mini-Washington in its influence on foreign policy and action abroad. One thing that I find engaging about Petraeus is his PhD from Princeton. I’m worried that Mattis’s intellect is being conflated to Petraeus because Mattis took meditations with him on his deployments. If a private brought Issac Asimov’s Foundation on deployments, would he be considered a genius based on that? Admittedly, I do not know if Mattis is brilliant or not – but we’re focused on the wrong things. There will always be a long list of smart people for a job. To become a four-star general, Mattis must be quick and intelligent. He obviously can navigate both bureaucratic and political circles. He might crush this job. But still, it doesn’t mean his vision is the winning vision for the future. For Special Operators, what does a Mattis Pentagon look like? I don’t know.
Petraeus is a master of political-military public policy. His panel conversation and interviews with Charlie Rose showcase his top-tier mind. Whatever his personal transgression and personality problem are less critical compared to his reported intellect. In a perfect world, a brain and policy-minded individuals like Petraeus with the Special Operations background and experience like Michael Vickers would be the best choice in line with the current direction of how we fight.
Featured image courtesy of CNN.