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'America's Kinder, Gentler Department of Defense'

8:52 AM, Feb 25, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Mackubin Owens, writing in the Wall Street Journal

The Department of Defense faces some stark choices in the future due to the threat of sequestration. But the continual sounds of shoes dropping at the Pentagon suggest that the sequester may be the least of its problems.

The first shoe was the announcement in December that Marine Gen. James Mattis would leave his post as commander of Central Command in March, well short of what would be expected of a combatant commander who has acquitted himself well since he was appointed in August 2010. Most observers were stunned. There seemed to be no logical reason for his being replaced early. Most unforgivably, he learned of the move when an aide read a Pentagon press release announcing the change.

According to recent reports (on journalist Tom Ricks's blog, for instance), White House officials, especially National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, weren't happy with Gen. Mattis's advice, in particular his effort to change the strategic framework regarding Iran. Gen. Mattis thought we should be planning for what Iran is capable of doing—such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking Israel—not just what we assume Iran will do. In addition, Gen. Mattis and the White House clashed over the way ahead in Afghanistan, his concerns about Pakistani stability, and the response to the Arab spring.

Despite these policy disagreements, it is noteworthy that during Gen. Mattis's time as the commander responsible for one of the most volatile regions in the world, there were no manifestations of the unhealthy civil-military relations that characterized the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. There were no leaks to the press from within his command over policy disagreements and no reports of "slow rolling" or "foot dragging" in Gen. Mattis's implementation of the president's policy.

A president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves. By pushing Gen. Mattis overboard, the administration sent a message that it doesn't want smart, independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. What other generals and admirals are likely to take from this is that they should go along to get along, a very bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.

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