Defense experts on Tuesday recommended that Congress pass a waiver to allow retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to serve as defense secretary in Donald Trump's administration.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dr. Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Dr. Kathleen Hicks, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasized the importance of the constitutional statute establishing civilian control of the military but said that lawmakers should create an exception for Mattis to serve as secretary of defense.
By law, military personnel must be separated from the military for at least seven years to serve in the senior defense position. Republicans are expected this week to vote in the House and Senate on a waiver to allow Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, to serve as defense secretary despite only being separated from the service for three years.
"It is my personal conclusion that it is appropriate to create a specific exception to the statute for the Senate to consider the confirmation of Gen. James Mattis," Hicks said Tuesday morning. "I reach this assessment based on two primary factors: the qualities of the specific nominee and together with the safeguards in place to protect civilian control of the military in the presence of such an exception."
"Based on my professional interactions with Gen. Mattis and a review of available material, I believe his recent retirement from military service should not be disqualifying to his consideration by this committee and the United States Senate to be confirmed as the nation's next secretary of defense," Hicks continued.
"I am persuaded not only by his expert grasp of the most important security issues our nation faces but also by his clear commitment to and embodiment of the principles of civilian control of the military."
Both Hicks and Cohen cited Mattis' recent work editing Warriors and Citizens, a publication focusing on civilian control of the military.
"I have known Gen. Mattis for over a decade. He is probably the most widely read and reflective officer I know," Cohen said. "He is a writing general to … the co‐editor of an important recent book on civil‐military relations. More important than any of that, he has proven himself to be a man of exceptional character and judgment, and exemplary commitment to legal and constitutional norms. I would trust him to conceive and execute policy as anyone on this committee would wish."
Cohen said that he would not advocate for the waiver, if not for the current threat environment and his concerns about the "judgement and dispositions" of the incoming Trump administration. He expressed confidence that Trump would listen to the retired Marine general, and that Mattis would refuse orders to conduct torture, for which Trump has advocated despite its illegality.
"I have sharply criticized President Obama's policies, but my concerns pale in comparison with the sense of alarm I feel about the judgment and dispositions of the incoming White House team," Cohen stated. "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, and over time, helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction."
Trump formally announced Mattis as his choice for defense secretary in early December. During Tuesday's hearing, Hicks took issue with Trump's statement that it is "time for a general" to lead the Pentagon.
"It should never be considered 'time for a general' to fill the senior-most nonelected civilian position in the operational chain of command," she said. "Rather, this exemption is about a particular individual who is well qualified for the position to which the president-elect has nominated him."
The hearing took place two days before Mattis will testify before the same committee at his confirmation hearing. The members will then take up the waiver to advance Mattis' confirmation, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who chairs the committee, said Tuesday.
While Republicans and many Democrats have signaled their support for Trump's choice for defense secretary, at least two lawmakers—Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.), a Marine veteran—have said they will oppose the waiver because of the need for civilian control of the military.
Such a waiver has been passed only once before, to allow Gen. George Marshall to serve as secretary of defense in the 1950s.
Both experts on Tuesday described civilian control of the military as essential to the democracy of the United States. They urged the Senate panel to maintain fierce oversight of the law and the Defense Department.