Rick Spencer

Cabinet-level Influence of Executive Leadership

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, have each demonstrated a willingness to speak publicly in contradiction or refutation of President Donald Trump’s tweets.1McIntyre, Jamie. “Jim Mattis Responds to Trump Tweet: ‘No, We Are Never out of Diplomatic Solutions’ on North Korea.Washington Examiner. Contradicting a sitting president to the public while being a member of the cabinet would normally be seen as a form of resistance if not impudence and would typically have serious consequences. For Secretary Dunford, the only military officer in the group, speaking at variance of Presidential precedent could strain civil-military relations, or be regarded as insubordination the Commander in Chief. Given the current administration’s willingness to abandon presidential norms in favor of personal expression, and the risk of those expressions being read beyond their denotation, Sec. Mattis should continue to speak publicly, and to consider using television news coverage of his presentations, particularly when done jointly with Sec. Dunford, Sec. Tillerson, or other national security actors, to counsel the president on particularly serious national security issues.

Two Views of Obedience

General Shinseki, acting as Army Chief of Staff under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continually found himself trying to uphold his duty to obedience to civilian authority, remain respectful to that oath, and offer expert advice at odds with the prerogatives of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The respect from OSD towards Shinseki seemed anemic to onlookers. The way General Shinseki was treated by Rumsfeld, according to Matthew Moten writing in American Civil-Military Relations, “damaged the secretary’s already contentious relations with Congress’” and “…haunted all subsequent interactions between Shinseki and Rumsfeld,.” 2Moten, Matthew. “A Broken Dialogue: Rumsfeld, Shinseki, and Civil-Military Tension.” American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, Kindle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 42–70. Samuel Huntington argued that obedience by military officers to civilian was a “supreme virtue,” because it protects society from abuse of the exceptional power granted to the warrior class. In exchange for their control of arms, their restraining oath is to serve unarmed civilian representatives as an extension of society’s political will.

H.R. McMaster in his book Dereliction of Duty, suggests that the simple obedience by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to Sec. Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam constituted “the greatest sin leading to the biggest national security policy disaster of the past half century,” 3Betts, Richard. “Are Civil-Military Relations Still a Problem?” American Civil-Military Relations, Kindle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 11–39.. Trumping obedience in the hierarchy of values for a soldierly ethic is a commitment to a moral rigor and the rule of law. Moten and Burk,  discussing these boundaries in essays on civil-military relations argue that these exceptions are “exceedingly rare,” and the ready response is resignation by the offended officer.4Moten, Matthew. “A Broken Dialogue: Rumsfeld, Shinseki, and Civil-Military Tension.” American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, Kindle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 42–70.

Current Administration

The President’s rhetoric towards North Korean leadership after nuclear weapons testing, (expressed via social media and to the UN General Assembly), has been exceptionally confrontational. This has forced members of the national security cabinet to risk public disavowal of President’s position in order to assuage nervous public and anxious leaders closer to the Korean peninsula. One week after President Trump threatened “fire and fury,” and that the US military was “locked and loaded,” Secretary Dunford reaffirmed to South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the US was still far from any kind of military action against the DPRK. Sang-Hun, Choe.5U.S. General and South Korean Leader Push for Diplomacy on North Korea.The New York Times. On August 13 2017, Sec. Tillerson and Sec. Mattis jointly published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining their effort to apply “diplomatic and economic pressure,” in the hopes of effecting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.6Mattis, Jim, and Rex Tillerson. “We’re Holding Pyongyang to Account.Wall Street Journal. Four days later they held a joint press conference in Washington, while their military counterpart, Sec. Dunford was in Japan restating the position that the United States had not yet exhausted efforts to deescalate tensions between the new nuclear state (North Korea) and the US.7DeYoung, Karen. “Mattis and Tillerson Move to Clarify Administration Policy on North Korea.Washington Post. Near the end of August President Trump appeared to undercut efforts by Tillerson via Twitter, writing, “Talking is not the answer.” When pressed on the President’s tweet about the futility of diplomatic “talking,” Sec. Mattis told reporters both that diplomatic solutions remained, and as if to take responsibility for a leadership gap, asserted, “[that he has a] responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations,”.8McIntyre, Jamie. “Jim Mattis Responds to Trump Tweet: ‘No, We Are Never out of Diplomatic Solutions’ on North Korea.Washington Examiner. This small collection of recent public disavowals of the President’s rhetoric on the North Korea issue represent a more traditional US foreign policy posture towards antagonists, but a rare divisiveness between the President and his national security team. Arguably this kind of speech goes beyond what Samuel Huntington called the “objective” civilian control of the military. Objective control generally emphasizes apolitical military actors, and civilian actors that leave applied military decision-making to the Joint Chiefs or other uniformed representatives. Sec. Dunford and Sec. Mattis, (as an ex-Marine operating in a civilian role), are both ostensibly military representatives articulating a foreign policy at variance with what the President’s tweets connote.

Sec. Mattis, and somewhat his partners, Sec. Tillerson and Sec. Dunford, are able to protect civil-military relations by the confluence of a number of unique political realities. First, there is no correlation between the popularity of a sitting President and prominent members of his cabinet. The fate of someone like the above secretaries appears to track independently of the popularity of the President.9Panagopoulos, Costas. “‘The Polls’: Cabinet Member and Presidential Approval.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 153–62. They may feel at liberty to act out of a sense of being politically shielded. Second, President Trump has re-affirmed his trust in his generals; an affinity for military leadership that Secretaries Mattis and Dunford are able to utilize. Third, Sec. Mattis is seen by many as a force for stability inside the White House, a need so great that even his critics have been noticeably quiet.10Cooper, Helene, et al. “Mattis Shows How to Split With Trump Without Provoking Him.” The New York Times. Sec. Mattis’ wide popularity inside the White House has proved an important lever for the application of leadership and prudent counsel. While Mattis appears to be able to work well with other national security actors to influence the President’s foreign or military policy directly, there is an additional benefit in well-designed public speech: President Trump is known to be exceptionally responsive to televised news. When national security actors are judged on television, or in the media, Trump is affected. Secretary Mattis has been notably more successful than Secretary Tillerson in this regard. So far, Secretary Dunford, appears to be judged positively even when he acts as a political envoy, which normally would be at odds with a culture of objective civilian control of the military. The result is that members of the national security administration are increasingly able to espouse and legitimate foreign policy positions on behalf of the United States that are at variance with that of their superior. To the yield of restoring some regularity, predictability, and credibility to the United States as an international actor. While it may appear very difficult to preempt POTUS’ inflammatory twitter activity, the success and popularity of Secretary Mattis public and private influence campaign, holds promise as a controversial means of restoring stability and creating security assurances for foreign leaders.  It may additionally ensure health US civil-military relations by for the US military redressing potentially alarm at President sabre-rattling.


Members of the national security establishment should consider judicious but widened use of the media to create assurances in the broader public that the US government is more stable, effective and reliable than one might infer from the Twitter feed of POTUS or Donald J Trump, and develop a competence with the medium that affords them indirect opportunities to educate and influence a president who seems inordinately attentive to the press.