Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Democrats should cooperate with the waiver process to allow retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
Panetta told The Washington Post in an interview at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California that Mattis deserves the job. Democrats should support the waiver process, he argued, so long as Mattis is cognizant of the importance of the secretary of defense position as a distinctly civilian role.
“It’s important that the Congress in the process of providing that waiver makes sure that Jim Mattis understands that he has to play a role not just on the military side but also on the civilian side. I think he does,” Panetta said.
Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former Marine, confirmed Monday he will oppose the waiver process. The process is necessary because Mattis has not been out of the military for the required time of seven years. Gallego serves on the House Committee on Armed Services. His statement now places him in the same company as Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in seeking to block the waiver.
As far as Panetta is concerned, the 1947 law that stipulates a seven-year gap between military service and taking over the post of secretary of defense is based on an old system that no longer exists. Back in the 1940s, generals were solely concerned with war fighting. Now, their roles are much more expansive.
“That was in a time coming out of WWII when there was a tremendous reliance on military leadership during the war and a recognition that they were warriors while the people considering defense policy had to consider wider issues,” Panetta said. “I believe that civilian control and civilian involvement in the Defense Department is an important principle, but I also don’t think a military background should be disqualifying.”
Regardless, GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, has assured members no one intends to ram the waiver through, and said the process will allow for full discussion and consideration.
“We’re not going to try to ram it through, we’re going to fully talk to the experts, the legal scholars and others, and do it in due course,” Thornberry told Defense News.
Current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated Monday that Mattis is “an extremely capable person,” though he declined to offer any kind of opinion on the controversy about civilian control of the military.
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