First, let me address the man. General Matthis may be a great guy, and he sure is a great quote. But his statements both as an officer and as a retired officer bother me. They might be fine for commanding soldiers into battle, but not for a President. Patton was a great wartime general, but no one (with any sense of reason) would want him to be President. And, yes, Matthis is very conservative, which is why he is appealing to his fans and not so much to me. I did suggest that he might be a smidge authoritarian. Well, that is his persona (and also a characteristic of military officers, according to the various surveys by Peter Feaver and others). Whether Matthis believes it or not, I cannot tell. But I wouldn't want someone at anytime whose primary characteristic is as an ass-kicker as President.
Second, Matthis is a Marine, and I am not too fond of the Marines these days. Well, their leadership. Why? Mostly because of how things played out in Afghanistan.
- One of the principle problems with the NATO effort was that there was little unity of command (a key military principle). Instead, you had each contingent fighting under different rules (see ye olde book, now out in paperback). But putting aside the alliance, the US had a chain of command that was compared to a plate of spaghetti, as you had a war in CENTCOM's region run by NATO (which is led by a different American four star officer than the one running CENTCOM), and Special Operations Forces reporting directly back to their commanders in Tampa. In 2009, under General McChrystal (he was not all bad), they created the IJC (ISAF Joint Command) to clean this up so that the Americans in ISAF would be under the same command structure as the rest of the alliance. The Marines, when they reinforced the US and NATO troops as part of the surge, were not willing to put themselves into the IJC command structure, and instead reported directly through to Marine commanders at CENTCOM (I could be slightly off on some of the details but the basic thrust is right). So, all that effort to clean up the command structure went poof.
- The second problem the always seeking autonomy Marines imposed on the mission was insisting on going to Helmand instead of Kandahar. Helmand made sense to them because it meant they would not have to split the key building block of the Marine Expeditionary Force [MEF]. They could occupy a space and not really have to cooperate with others. This was very problematic since the Commander-in-Chief (President Obama) had agreed to a surge that was population centric, and, alas, the population that needed some surging was not in Helmand (lots of poppies, not that many people) but in Kandahar. This didn't happen under Matthis but Matthis allowed it to persist when he was CENTCOM commander. And as the major figure among the very few three and four star Marines, he might have been able to have some influence on this deployment. Anyhow, in my eyes, the Marines were insubordinate in this time frame. Why? Because they didn't want to break apart their MEF and because they did not want to work with others. Indeed, Regional Command South encompassed all of Southern Afghanistan until the Marines came, and then they got to have their own RC-Southwest with the Brits and Danes but not the pesky Canadians or US Army units in Kandahar. [Yes, I have read the stuff that says that the Canadians didn't want help in Kandahar, but that is a load of crap.] The result of all of this is that Marines died in Helmand in significant numbers, but they were needed in Kandahar.
- Is Matthis tainted by this? In my opinion, yes. Again, 3-4 star Marines are a small club, and they pushed for policies that were good for the Marines and bad for the mission. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates regrets not doing more about this in his memoir, but does not really address it adequately. Sure, winning in Afghanistan depended far more on Pakistan and President Karzai, but this stuff did not help the effort. More importantly, as I said above, it was insubordinate.
The problem with having military leaders as presidents is that the skill sets are not the same. Yes, modern military officers are well trained in management (they understand principal-agent problems!), but Presidents cannot simply command, they must persuade, bargain and influence. Military officers have risen to the highest levels in an environment that emphasizes order and authority, which makes them usually pretty lousy at disorder and the messy life of politics. Again, people will throw Ike at me, but they forget that Ike stands out as the only General to become President in the 20th century. Much more common for that kind of thing in the 1800s, which was a very different time.
Which leads me to the fourth reason why I don't want a general now in the White House. We live in a time of diminished institutions--the Presidency, the Courts and the Congress are at their lowest levels of respect. Handing over power to someone from a rival institution with much more popular respect (we have to support the troops, which means let's not criticize the military) would be a bad move right now. Especially in a time of fear of terrorism and rising xenophobia. I just find it dangerous to grab onto a military guy at a time where the country is facing such division. It is tempting since the military is a national institution so someone with that background might be seen as a unifying force. But we ought not be seduced. It might work out rather well, but it could also be quite awful. I think 21st century democracies are better off with the military folks (retired or active) having little role to play in politics. I guess I am just strange that way.