Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, welcomes Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, welcomes Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A Pledge for More of the Same at the Pentagon

James Mattis has no new ideas for solving America's most intractable conflicts. Neither does congress.

That retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Donald Trump’s nominee to become defense secretary, is a Marine’s Marine and a genuine warrior is undoubtedly the case. If less well-known than David Petraeus, he is easily the better field commander, something Mattis demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question is whether he possesses the qualities suited to lead the Pentagon at this particular juncture.  

Mattis’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which convened today to consider his confirmation, raises doubts on that score. Or more precisely, it should raise doubts on the part of anyone viewing U.S. national security policy since 9/11 as less than satisfactory.

The most intriguing aspect of the exchange between Mattis and members of the committee was the absolute absence of interest, from either side, in how the armed forces of the United States have performed in recent years. In Afghanistan, in the now-resumed war in Iraq, in U.S. combat operations, large and small, in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria—none has yielded anything approximating conclusive victory. However you define U.S. aims and objectives—promoting stability? Spreading democracy? Reducing the incidence of Islamist terrorism?—they remain unfulfilled. Yet no senator thought to ask Mattis for his views on why that has been the case, what conclusions he draws from that absence of success, and how he might apply those conclusions as defense secretary.

In response to a leading question, Mattis opined that the global order is now being subjected to its “biggest attack since World War II,” with Russia, China, Iran, and terrorism, together, the responsible culprits. Senators neither asked for, nor did Mattis volunteer, any thoughts on whether any correlation might exist between this ostensibly dire situation and the military activism that has been a signature of U.S. national security policy over the past decade or so.

First under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, that penchant for activism has found U.S. forces continuously in combat. How can it be that their many sacrifices and the hundreds of billions of dollars expended have landed the United States in such a precarious predicament? Has America dropped an insufficient number of bombs? Have U.S. troops invaded, occupied, or raided too few countries?

None of the lawmakers present—several of whom made a point of promoting weapons systems produced in their state, or engaged in politically correct posturing—thought to solicit Mattis’s views on the this gap between effort and outcomes. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut elicited ironclad assurances that Mattis favored modernizing the navy’s submarine fleet, subs being made—surprise—in Connecticut. And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was able to advertise her credentials as a champion of women serving as combat infantrypersons. So of senatorial preening, there was plenty on display. Of questions touching on core issues of national security, there were next to none.

The strategic vacuum in which America’s endless wars drag on went unremarked upon. Whether members of the Armed Services Committee are oblivious to the absence of strategy or don’t see such matters falling within their jurisdiction is unclear. Perhaps they just don’t care.

As for Mattis himself, he came across as unimaginative and unoriginal. When it came to NATO, for example, he reiterated sentiments expressed by his predecessors of 20 or 30 years ago: history’s greatest alliance, now and forever. Observers worried that the onset of the Trump presidency posed a threat to the status quo can rest easy, at least as far as overseeing the Pentagon is concerned. With Mattis at the helm, the U.S. military apparatus is one swamp that won’t be drained. Indeed, his evident priority is not to drain, but to replenish.

Mattis responded to senatorial questioning like the career military officer that he is: by making the case for more. More money for maintaining and refurbishing hard-used equipment, more money to buy new weapons, more money to expand the size of the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps. New nukes? Yes. New strategic missiles? Yes. A new long-range manned bomber? Yes. New submarines? Yes. The gold-plated, years-behind-schedule F-35? Love it. Oh, yes, Mattis promised to be a careful steward of the nation’s resources, a vow that senators pretended to take seriously. The various entities comprising the military-industrial complex, from General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, to Boeing and Raytheon, have got to be licking their chops.

On multiple occasions, Mattis referred to his determination to enhance the “lethality” of U.S. forces as if an inability to kill people and break things has hampered the effectiveness of U.S. forces. The problem is not a lack of lethality. It’s misguided policies based on a flawed understanding of what armed force can and cannot do, and when it should or should not be employed.

On that score, Mattis and members of the Senate Armed Services are certainly on the same page. They are clueless.