Gates: Congress should “absolutely” approve Mattis to be SecDef

Gates: Congress should “absolutely” approve Mattis to be SecDef

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, says Gen. James Mattis, USMC (Ret), left, is an excellent pick to lead the Pentagon. Mattis led two combatant commands when Gates served as defense secretary. Photo credit: Cherie Cullen/Defense Department

By Gina Harkins, Senior Staff Writer  

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has seen Gen. James Mattis, USMC (Ret), in action. 

Gates recommended Mattis for some key leadership positions while he was running the Pentagon. Mattis served as the head of two different combatant commands in that time - experience Gates says makes the retired four-star an excellent pick to serve as the next defense secretary. 

“I fully understand the concern about civilian control of the military, and in most instances I would be very reluctant to have a recently retired senior officer serve as secretary,” Gates told MOAA. “But I think an exception should be made for General Mattis because he's an exceptional person.” 

Gates, the only defense secretary to work for two opposing administrations - first under President George W. Bush and then under President Barack Obama - did not hold back about his feelings on the job when he left the Pentagon in 2011. In 2014, he penned a candid tell-all in which he wrote that he “did not enjoy being secretary of defense.” 

As budgets tighten amid ongoing global uncertainty, Mattis could face many of the same challenges Gates did when he was defense secretary. 

MOAA caught up with Gates the day after Mattis formally accepted President-elect Donald Trump's nomination to become defense secretary. Gates shared his advice for Mattis, along with his views on what makes the retired general the right person to lead DoD. 

Q. What were your immediate thoughts when you saw that President-elect Trump named Mattis for the SecDef role?

A. I think it's an excellent choice. It's not just his military experience that makes him the right choice but his knowledge of history, familiarity with the challenges facing the United States, with the Pentagon, and the budget process - but above all else, it's his strategic capabilities. 

I think all of that together will prove to be a great asset to the new president.  

Q. You mentioned that in most cases, you'd be concerned about seeing an officer who recently left the military to serve as defense secretary - what would give you pause?

A. I think a lot of officers don't bring the kind of strategic vision and depth of historical knowledge and experience that General Mattis has. They may be very good commanders, but let's just say they don't have the range of experience and knowledge that I think he has. 

Q. You recommended that General Mattis serve in some key positions when you were defense secretary. What did you see then that makes you think he's right for this job?

A. At U.S. Joint Forces Command [JFCOM], which coordinated training and military doctrine used by all the services, I gave him a very tough and unprecedented task: to shut it down. I felt it was costing too much, that it had accomplished its missions, and what remained could be handled by other organizations. 

That's the first time anybody has had to shut down a combatant command. It was a very difficult process, especially with the political implications for Virginia's Tidewater region. Contrary to Mattis' reputation as a combat commander, this was about managing local politics and decisions. He was tasked with determining what parts of the command should remain under different auspices, what parts should be dismantled, where we could save money, how many jobs would be lost, and where people should be transferred. It was a major managerial task that frankly no other general officer had to manage in decades. 

Then I recommended him to be the head of U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM], and that was really based not only on his combat experience in Iraq and in the theater, but on his broader experience, sense of strategy, and historical knowledge. I thought he would bring all of that to bear in CENTCOM. 

Q. What are some of the things he learned during those assignments that will serve him well as SecDef?

A. One of his ancillary roles at JFCOM was that he was the deputy allied supreme commander for transformation, so in that capacity he had to sit through many of the same NATO defense minister meetings that I did. I think it gave him unique exposure for a senior military officer. It showed him how to deal with the political and military aspects of an alliance that will be critically important as secretary of defense. 

At CENTCOM, he faced challenges that he'll face as secretary. When you have two wars going on and you have finite resources, how do you balance the allocation of those resources? For example, when it came to air cover - especially drones - how do you allocate between the theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan when both commanders are asking for more? 

Having to deal with those tradeoffs, as well as dealing with the 30 or so countries that CENTCOM covers, again gave him experience with the political side of the defense enterprise because he was dealing with all of these foreign governments. I think both of those jobs gave him a lot of broad experience beyond the command responsibilities that he had executed so well.  

Q. It's now up to members of Congress to pass legislation allowing Mattis to run the Pentagon - it sounds like you hope they will?

A. Absolutely. I think the only other former senior commander to have served in that capacity was Gen. George Marshall, USA (Ret). I think this kind of thing should be rare, but in this case, I think it's totally justified. 

Q. You were very candid about some of your own frustrations with the defense secretary job in your book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. What's your advice for Mattis as he prepares to fill the same role?

A. General Mattis and I would share our frustrations with the long defense ministers' meetings in Brussels. The French defense minister once outed me for doing crossword puzzles during the meeting. 

So my suggestion to General Mattis would be to lay in a good supply of crossword puzzles. [Laughs

Q. What will be some of his top challenges inside the Pentagon?

A. One of the biggest he's going to face is the budget - particularly the implications of sequestration and the ongoing problems caused by continuing resolutions. That is going to be a big-ticket item for him, the new administration, and Congress: how to get back to regular budgeting practices so there is some measure of predictability for DoD in terms of being able to plan. 

When the Congress neglects its responsibilities to make tough decisions on these issues based on the advice of the secretary and the recommendations from the president, it just makes the situation nearly impossible for the Defense Department. The secretary of defense will be the point person in terms of dealing with that issue and the implications if it doesn't get fixed. 

Q. The military is being pulled in many directions abroad as it takes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and helps assure allies in Europe and the Pacific. What will his top challenges be outside the Pentagon's walls?

A. I think right now the international environment and the challenges we face are as complex as we've faced since the end of World War II, just because there's so many of them. 

We've got challenges relating to China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, North Africa, the consequences of what's going to happen in Europe after Brexit, and so on. Some of those are not a major responsibility of the secretary of defense, but he would be involved in virtually all of those decisions. 

It's not like there's one or two or three problems that have to be addressed - there are a bunch. One in which he'll play a big role will be in cyber and some of the decisions about how to use U.S. Cyber Command's capabilities to protect infrastructure here in the U.S. 

He won't ever have to worry about having an empty inbox. 

Q. President-elect Trump has laid out big plans for the military: more troops, more planes, more ships. What role will General Mattis play in carrying out that kind of buildup if it comes to fruition?

A. I think it's going to be tough to get the money out of Congress to do all of that. Mattis will have to, in working with the joint chiefs of staff, make recommendations to the president in terms of priorities for funding. They'll just have to work that out together. 

Q. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has implemented - or is considering implementing - major reforms like lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles and possibly shaking up the personnel system by allowing servicemembers with certain skills to come in at higher ranks. What kinds of decisions will Mattis face in deciding whether to continue those policies?

A. I think you've correctly framed it: I think he will have to decide what he's going to continue. Another one of the initiatives I think is very important is figuring out how to continue the significant emphasis on modernization and acquisition of new technologies that Secretary Carter has initiated. 

Whether they're continued exactly in the form he has designed is up to the new secretary. But the effort itself, I think, is of great importance as we look to the next 10 or 15 years and the continued modernization efforts - especially in China and Russia. There's also a need for continuing innovation at the smaller scale in terms of the kinds of conflicts we're dealing with in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Q. When it comes to resources, the Marines - being the smallest service - tend to say they're used to doing more with less. What do you think that's taught Mattis that he can apply at DoD?

A. One of the things that I tried to begin to inculcate in 2009 and 2010 was a culture of savings rather than a culture of spending because there was pretty much an open checkbook from Sept. 11, 2001. I think the experience of having to do more with less has probably given Mattis the sense that there's a lot of overhead that's vulnerable to being cut - or that should be cut - and that there are sometimes more efficient ways of doing things. 

One of my approaches in 2010 was what we called the efficiencies exercise. We identified about $180 billion that could be made by cutting overhead. I told the services secretaries and chiefs that they had to identify where they were going to cut the overhead. Then I said, “After you've done that, if you come back to me, tell me where you'd like to spend the money you've saved on additional military capabilities - not bureaucracy.” 

I think that's what General Mattis is likely to focus on: How do we turn tail into tooth more effectively? 

Q. What do you think General Mattis is going to like most about this job?

A. Based on everything I know about Jim Mattis, it'll be being back with all of those men and women who serve in uniform, particularly the junior servicemembers. I think that will be the most enjoyable part for him. 

Q. He's definitely popular with rank-and-file troops. How will having him in the SecDef spot motivate servicemembers after years of war and budget cuts?

A. I think it's really important when those out on the front lines believe the guy at the top has their back, understands what they're going through, understands what's happening to their families, and is doing everything in his power to help them. 

I believe that matters to morale, it matters for retention, and [it] probably ultimately has an impact on performance. 

Q. What about more senior leaders, combatant commanders for example? How do you think they'll respond to a Secretary Mattis?

A. My suspicion is that a Secretary Mattis will be a pretty demanding boss. He'll have an advantage that President Dwight Eisenhower had in that it'll be pretty tough for anybody to B.S. him.