Is James Mattis Any Threat to Democracy?

A thinking man's general.

Photographer: CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump's intention to nominate James Mattis as secretary of defense places Congress in a bind. Is it duty-bound to reject an obviously well-qualified person for the job? Or would confirming Mattis, a retired four-star general, endanger the nation's founding tradition of civilian control of the military?

The problem is that Mattis retired from the Marines only four years ago, short of the seven-year waiting period mandated by Congress. The law was broken once before, for George Marshall in 1950. Marshall was a special case: The former highest-ranking U.S. military official in World War II, he had already served as secretary of state, lending his name to the post-war rebuilding project in Western Europe. But when Congress voted to make an exception for Marshall, lawmakers insisted it be a one-time deal, stating that "no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved."

Today's Congress is not bound by the wishes of its forbears from 65 years ago, of course. But it owes them -- as well as the authors of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and other founding documents -- the utmost care in making another exception. While the idea of a military coup in the U.S. may seem absurd today, the Founders were wise to be wary of standing armies and officers corps amassing powers to rival those of the commander in chief. Congress may ultimately decide that Mattis is well worth setting aside the rule. But his confirmation hearings should devote as much attention to his views on military-civilian relations as to what Pentagon reforms he proposes or how he wants to defeat Islamic State.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower demonstrated -- by extricating the U.S. from the Korean War and keeping the Suez Crisis from becoming World War III -- military leaders tend to be extremely wary of putting troops' lives at risk, and that's a virtue in any defense secretary. Mattis, in particular, is both a legendary fighter and an erudite soldier-scholar nicknamed "the Warrior Monk." If confirmed, he might also be a calming influence on Mike Flynn, the irascible former general Trump has chosen to be national security adviser -- someone Mattis outranked in the military by a star.

Ideally, Congress's confirmation hearings on Mattis will become a chance to publicly consider what role the military should play in American society during a time of war against terrorism and rising threats from Russia and China. When that's done, Congress may very well find that James Mattis is as deserving as George Marshall of special consideration.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.