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December 7th, 2016
By: Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA)
Retired Marine general James Mattis was my division commander in the Marines, and the first time I heard him speak was in the windswept Kuwaiti desert on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Standing atop his Humvee, he told us how he planned to duct tape Saddam Hussein to the front of the truck when we got to Baghdad and drive around the city — and we eager young Marines roared with approval.
This is the kind of story that earned Mattis his nickname “Mad Dog,” and the kind of bravado that attracted President-elect Trump to select him to serve as secretary of Defense.
The good news for our country is that Trump has Mattis all wrong.
The first sign was when Trump expressed surprise after their first meeting that Mattis isopposed to torture. Since then, it has come out that Mattis is, like most foreign policy professionals on both sides of the aisle, opposed to Trump’s desire to rip up the Iran deal. The agreement is far from perfect, but the restrictions and inspections it places on Iran are far better than nothing at all.
In fact, when you get to know Mattis, you quickly learn that he is one of the most thoughtful strategic thinkers we have. A true “warrior scholar,” he co-authored with David Petraeus the counter-insurgency doctrine that turned around the war in Iraq. He’s exceptionally well-read — he assembled a library of nearly 7,000 volumesand can cite passages at will. And most importantly, he’s a truly moral leader.
On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Mattis offered us far more than tough talk. He also reminded us to engage our brains before our weapons, and treat all noncombatants with decency, chivalry, and compassion. He reminded us of the fundamental rights and values for which America stands, and he has never accepted compromising those values even in the brutal pursuit of killing our enemies.
There are legitimate concerns about his nomination when it comes to the fundamental principle of civilian control of the military. The law requires a former service member to wait seven years before serving as secretary of Defense, and Mattis retired only three years ago. It’s our job in Congress to seriously debate whether to grant an exemption to current law. The importance of this principle merits a standalone bill, not an attempt to shoehorn an exemption into a larger government funding bill as currently planned.
Should the exemption be approved, it would not be without precedent. The last time it was done was on behalf of Democrat Harry Truman, who named George Marshall his Defense secretary in 1950 — less than five years after his retirement from the Army.
Amidst a cabinet that is shaping up to be nearly as unqualified as our new president, including a secretary of Education who has never attended a public school and a Treasury secretary who made millions off foreclosures at the height of the financial crisis, Mattis stands out as a remarkably qualified leader, and I know he is someone who will actually stand up to President Trump. Before Trump realizes this himself, Democrats would be wise to have this debate and then grant an exemption to confirm him as our next secretary of Defense.
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