ELLIOT: That Mad Dog wont hunt

The precedent is the problem, not Gen. James Mattis

Shannon Stapleton—Reuters
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump listens to General James Mattis speak at the USA Thank You Tour event at Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville

Congress should refuse to pass a waiver for retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis to serve as president-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of defense. Great respect is due to Mattis, one of the Marine Corps’ living heroes and a man who has dedicated his life to serving and protecting his country.
Mattis, 66, is likely to make a good defense chief. By all accounts he is tough, erudite, patriotic, and capable. He is the former head of the U.S. military’s Central Command and, in 2003, led the 1st Marine Division into Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Mad Dog famously warned his Marines to “have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” but also advised them that the most important 6 inches in a combat zone was “between your ears.” He is currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, reads avidly, and grew up in a home without TV.
There is no credible threat that Mattis would misuse the post of defense secretary. Indeed, his long service to this country and respect for its institutions make it a laughable assertion.
But the wisdom of civilian control of the military is too important a concept to waive away. The 1947 law establishing the seven-year waiting period between active military service and the direct control of the nation’s armed forces is one of the many hurdles in our system of governance to a military dictatorship. Chipping away at them, by simply passing a waiver whenever one is needed, is folly.
Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was right when he said that “Civil control of the military is not something to be casually cast aside.”
Remember, the Senate must already confirm any Trump pick to lead the Department of Defense. So this is not about Congress having a check against someone with a too-recent military background or an unacceptable passion for misusing military power. Instead, this is about the primacy of the precedent as a future deterrent. Any waiver now would set a precedent that it’s not really about a waiting period, it’s just another Congressional hurdle to be cleared. That could prove dangerous in the future.
In fact, instead of passing a waiver for Mattis, Congress should propose a Constitutional amendment enshrining the seven-year hiatus. While some have rightly called the seven-year gap an “arbitrary” length of time, so too is the Constitution’s insistence that senators be 30 years of age, or the president be 35. Sometimes arbitrary is as good as it can get when you’re planning decades and centuries ahead into circumstances you can’t foresee.
As many have noted, this is not about Mattis. Trump should find a way to keep him close and let him serve in some other capacity, at least until Trump’s second term, if there is one. As a student of history, Mattis himself surely knows that the dangers of military control of the state are far too great to make exceptions.