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Senate committee debates civilian control of the military before Mattis hearings

W.J. Hennigan, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers appear prepared to grant Donald Trump's pick for secretary of defense an exception to circumvent a law that mandates civilian control of the military.

Federal law dictates that the person leading the Pentagon cannot have served in uniform in the last seven years. Former Gen. James N. Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, needs Congress to pass a law to get around that restriction.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to begin his confirmation hearing on Thursday, but the panel scrutinized the current law for more than two hours Tuesday with two experts, who also signaled little opposition to approving what amounts to a waiver.

Eliot Cohen, a former senior Pentagon and State Department official who is now professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, defended civilian control of the military, which he called "central to the American experience since colonial times."

Cohen, who publicly warned other conservatives from serving in a Trump administration after the November election, said a waiver was appropriate in this case because Mattis could help prevent what he called "wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal" actions by the incoming White House.

"I have sharply criticized President Obama's policies, but my concerns pale in comparison with the sense of alarm I feel about the judgment and dispositions of the incoming White House team," Cohen told the committee.

"There is no doubt in my mind that a Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal things from happening," he added.

Mattis, who served four decades in the Marines, headed U.S. Central Command in his final three years and commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Known as a military thinker and strategist, he is well-respected inside and outside the military.

Kathleen Hicks, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, also recommended granting the waiver -- the first since Congress agreed to let Army Gen. George C. Marshall become secretary of Defense in 1950.

"I am persuaded not only by his expert grasp of the most important security issues our nation faces but also by his clear commitment to and embodiment of the principles of civilian control of the military," she said, citing "Warriors and Citizens," a publication that Mattis recently co-edited.

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