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Mattis' Appointment Would Require Special Approval From Congress


As we mentioned earlier, Donald Trump's choice of retired Marine General James Mattis as his defense secretary will require not just approval from the Senate, but also special legislation from both houses of Congress, that to bypass a law requiring service members to wait seven years before filling the role of secretary of defense or other senior posts traditionally held by a civilian.

So we were curious about the history of that civilian leadership requirement, so we called Peter Feaver for that. He's a professor of political science at Duke University. He's written extensively about civilian-military relations. He's also a former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration. Professor Peter Feaver, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PETER FEAVER: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what is the origin of this tradition now codified into law that the military be led by a civilian in the U.S.?

FEAVER: The tradition goes all the way back to the founding of the republic. So our first president, George Washington, had been the uniformed commander in chief during the Revolutionary War. But then when he took over as president, he made a point of shedding the uniform and not appearing in uniform as a military officer, even though he was the most distinguished military officer of his age. He was commander in chief as president but as a civilian. And that set the tone for the rest of U.S. history, that the president and then also his cabinet members who were managing the military on a day-to-day basis - the secretary of war and secretary of navy for most of our history - they were civilians, and they functioned as civilians, not as military officers.

Fast forward to 1947 when the country's deciding to do something that the founders of the republic would never have done and that is maintain a very large military in peacetime so as to protect us from the Soviet menace during the Cold War. And they codified this idea in the 1947 law that created the post of secretary of defense, that this person had to be a civilian. And if they had military experience, it had to be in the distant past.

MARTIN: So the time limit was originally 10 years when this was first codified in 1947, and then that time limit was knocked down in 2008 to seven years. When was the last time there was a person who had been a career military person leading the Defense Department?

FEAVER: The 10-year rule in 1947 effectively blocked all the senior generals from World War II. But within a couple of years, Truman decided that the best person for the job was George Marshall, in part, because the problem in the late-'40s was not just civilian control, but also managing interservice rivalry. So Truman decided we need a very strong secretary of defense and having someone who had been a senior military officer recently might actually help the interservice rivalry problems. And so George Marshall was tapped by Truman for the job.

But that required that the Congress that had passed the law change the law. But in doing so, they said it's our intention to make this a one-time exception, and we hope future Congresses never break this pattern. And for 65 years, no one has had - required that waiver. General Mattis will be the first one to require it.

MARTIN: So it sounds to me like you're saying this is tradition which really goes back to the founding of the Republic that - a sense that there ought not to be a strong standing army because this would be, what? Deemed to be...

FEAVER: To be a threat to democracy, that if you had a very large standing army in peacetime, that army might decide that they could run the government better.

MARTIN: But what would be a compelling argument to Congress to override that?

FEAVER: If you're going to make the exception, you want to make the exception for a general that has thought a lot about civil-military relations and has a sophisticated understanding of civilian control, and Jim Mattis meets that test. He's literally co-edited a book on civil-military relations and, full disclosure, I had a chapter in that book. It's been a very difficult time for civil-military relations over the last several years. And having a secretary of defense who's trusted by both the generals and by the White House, could go a long way to smoothing those waters.

Secondly, we have an unconventional administration because President-elect Trump got elected during a campaign in which so many of the senior Republican national security experts signed letters opposing him thus taking themselves out of consideration for a post like this, his pool is smaller than a traditional Republican would have been. And in that smaller pool, Jim Mattis is one of the very, very top names you could come up with.

This is a very dangerous time in geostrategic terms. The next president is inheriting a very difficult national security environment, much more difficult than the one the Obama administration inherited in 2009. And so you really do need the A-Team this time.

MARTIN: That was Peter Feaver, professor of political science at Duke University. Professor Feaver, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FEAVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.