The most intriguing aspect of the exchange between Mattis and members of the committee was the absolute absence of interest, from either side, in how the armed forces of the United States have performed in recent years. In Afghanistan, in the now-resumed war in Iraq, in U.S. combat operations, large and small, in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria—none has yielded anything approximating conclusive victory. However you define U.S. aims and objectives—promoting stability? Spreading democracy? Reducing the incidence of Islamist terrorism?—they remain unfulfilled. Yet no senator thought to ask Mattis for his views on why that has been the case, what conclusions he draws from that absence of success, and how he might apply those conclusions as defense secretary.
None of the lawmakers present—several of whom made a point of promoting weapons systems produced in their state, or engaged in politically correct posturing—thought to solicit Mattis’s views on the this gap between effort and outcomes. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut elicited ironclad assurances that Mattis favored modernizing the navy’s submarine fleet, subs being made—surprise—in Connecticut. And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was able to advertise her credentials as a champion of women serving as combat infantrypersons. So of senatorial preening, there was plenty on display. Of questions touching on core issues of national security, there were next to none.
The strategic vacuum in which America’s endless wars drag on went unremarked upon. Whether members of the Armed Services Committee are oblivious to the absence of strategy or don’t see such matters falling within their jurisdiction is unclear. Perhaps they just don’t care.
Mattis responded to senatorial questioning like the career military officer that he is: by making the case for more. More money for maintaining and refurbishing hard-used equipment, more money to buy new weapons, more money to expand the size of the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps. New nukes? Yes. New strategic missiles? Yes. A new long-range manned bomber? Yes. New submarines? Yes. The gold-plated, years-behind-schedule F-35? Love it. Oh, yes, Mattis promised to be a careful steward of the nation’s resources, a vow that senators pretended to take seriously. The various entities comprising the military-industrial complex, from General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, to Boeing and Raytheon, have got to be licking their chops.
It’s misguided policies based on a flawed understanding of what armed force can and cannot do, and when it should or should not be employed. On that score, Mattis and members of the Senate Armed Services are certainly on the same page. They are clueless.