National Security & Defense

In Delegating to Mattis, the President Employs His Command

Defense Secretary Mattis attends commencement ceremonies at West Point in May. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Trump’s critics miss the lesson in leadership.

One of the leadership principles each officer candidate, and later, brand-new second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, learns is “employ your command in accordance with its capabilities.” Despite memorizing maxims by rote and reciting them in any number of uncomfortable settings in Quantico, Va., nary a product of those hard-learned lessons will dispute the universal applicability of this particular principle.

The essence of this credo lies in the idea that a leader should know the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of his team — and utilize them accordingly. When President Trump two weeks ago announced that he had delegated to Defense Secretary James Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, some on the left scoffed at such a decision. They accused the president of creating an “unhealthy” consolidation of power at the Pentagon and of attempting to absolve responsibility for the outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this decision, the president has demonstrated a keen understanding of leadership — and employed his command in accordance with its capabilities.

When pressed by Senator John McCain during his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 13, Secretary Mattis agreed that we are “not winning” in Afghanistan. Who better, then, to determine troop levels necessary to win? Winning, Mattis agreed, will not come in the form of a single decisive combat victory, but with consistent interdiction of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Afghanistan; we’ll also need to keep building a coalition of Afghan troops who will be able to help the burgeoning infrastructure return to its once (relatively) stable, pre-Soviet, pre-Taliban, posture.

Critics bemoan Trump’s decision as one that gives policy power to the military in a system designed to ensure civilian control over policy decisions. Such criticism overlooks that the Senate Armed Services Committee granted a waiver to Mattis in January for the required seven years of military separation prior to confirmation as secretary of defense (Mattis exited the military four years before his confirmation.) The criticism, as well, insinuates that because Mattis once wore a uniform (albeit one with stars on its collars), he is incapable of making judgments as a civilian policymaker rather than as the combatant commander he once was. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our country has a rich tradition of military leaders reemerging as civilians armed with policy breadth that others may lack — or even envy. Secretary Mattis is distinguished among that group: a civilian more than capable of making informed decisions on the policy level.

Not only is the secretary the right man at the right time to be making troop-level decisions; other military-policy decisions may fall within his purview as well. Of course, having authority over troop levels does not mean that one has authority over all of American foreign policy. We should not conflate these roles, as Anne Applebaum did in writing in the Washington Post, “The disastrous occupation of Iraq — this was the work of the Defense Department, which deliberately cut out the State Department.” She forgets that Paul Bremer served a career as a Department of State Foreign Service officer before heading the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. (John Negroponte, who followed Bremer as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also served a career at the State Department). Foreign policy requires input from many government agencies. No one sector of our government can make foreign policy successful or abysmal. Applebaum’s worry that a troop-level decision from Secretary Mattis would unilaterally upend interagency collaboration and American foreign policy is both without merit and a gross generalization.

The critics who disapprove of Trump’s delegating troop-level decisions to Secretary Mattis seem to confuse both “foreign policy” and “diplomacy” with the avoidance of conflict. “Diplomacy,” when defined by said critics as conflict avoidance, accounts for the greatest U.S. foreign policy wins of the 20th century, they argue. But they conveniently forget the armistice signed in Compiègne, the Potsdam Ultimatum, V-E Day and the subsequent Marshall Plan, Operation Just Cause in Panama, and the first Gulf War. On the contrary, both foreign policy and diplomacy require the threat, and sometimes the use, of military confrontation in order to be effective. “Diplomacy” is not the avoidance of conflict, nor does it exclude the military. It is, rather, achieving desired statecraft ends through a combination of means — including the threat of armed conflict.

Our country has a rich tradition of military leaders reemerging as civilians armed with policy breadth.

Trump’s decision to grant Mattis the authority to set Afghanistan troop levels reflects the trust that he has in his secretary of defense, and it also implicitly recognizes the capabilities and role of the president’s Cabinet. The entire Cabinet, including Secretary Mattis, serves at the pleasure of the president. If the secretary of defense increased the military footprint in Afghanistan to levels that undermined our country’s policy objectives (which he would not do), would the president sit idly by, as his critics suggest? Or would he shirk responsibility because he’d delegated authority to an expert? Of course he wouldn’t; this is just political griping.

President Trump’s delegation stands in stark contrast to the centralized authority that President Obama and his national-security team imposed.

President Trump’s delegation stands in stark contrast to the centralized authority that President Obama and his national-security team imposed, particularly during Obama’s second term. From troop levels to timelines to red lines to intelligence strategies and rules of engagement, the Obama administration held the reins tightly and micromanaged — demonstrating an implicit distrust of combatant commanders, intelligence officers, and military personnel deployed to conflict zones in unthinkably difficult circumstances. Policy, they thought, had to be implemented only from the top down. Decentralized decision-making was anathema, and it seemed that no one in the Obama White House knew about the famed Quantico principles of leadership.

By deferring to a subject-matter expert in Secretary Mattis, the president has harnessed the confrontation portion of foreign policy and diplomacy that the Left has lost sight of. The president has, in fact, deferred to an expert whose capabilities are specifically suited for the decisions he’s empowered to make — appropriately reminiscent of a commander who decentralizes authority in a military unit.


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When I saw the chop-suey font in the CNN story I was reminded of a powdered-drink product from my youth: Funny Face.