Opinion writer
Retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis is President Trump's Secretary of Defense. Here's what you need to know about "Mad Dog Mattis." (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

More than a few conservative foreign policy hawks are getting nervous about the prospect of installing a military man — even one as good as retired Gen. James Mattis (USMC) — in a civilian post, secretary of defense. Even those who readily acknowledge that Mattis or retired Gens. David Petraeus or John Kelly would be far superior to many of President-elect Donald Trump’s potential picks express concern about departing from our tradition of civilian leadership.

We have a civilian atop the Defense Department for a reason, they say. Yes, they acknowledge, an exception was made for Gen. George C. Marshall. Aside from the “none of these Marshall” argument, we nevertheless should recall that Marshall “was not a combat general, despite having served in France in World War I. Marshall was a great staff officer who basically ran World War II for the U.S. government.”

The issue has nothing to do with the individuals involved, as a New York Times report explains:

“The president and the secretary of defense are the two leading figures in the chain of command,” said Peter D. Feaver, a political-science professor at Duke University who served in the George W. Bush administration. “When they are civilians, that embodies that principle.”

Gen. Carter F. Ham, the retired head of the United States military’s Africa command, said the question of whether General Mattis was qualified to lead the Pentagon was a “slam dunk — he absolutely is.” But the reason the waiver “was put into law is that we are not a militaristic society, nor do we want to be,” he said. “The idea of senior military officers assuming senior positions in the civilian government — that is worthy of debate.”

Part of the problem that concerned foreign policy experts have with a military man as defense secretary is the presence already of one ex-general, Michael Flynn, a problematic choice for national security adviser to be sure. Does an administration with two ex-military officers in three of the highest national security positions (State being the other) seem appropriate? (Frankly Flynn should never have been picked, and his relationship with Turkey is setting off alarm bells.) Trump’s image as an authoritarian figure with little respect for democratic values would intensify in an administration stocked with military figures.

Trump, a novice politician and an ignorant one, likely is not concerned with such abstractions. If he picks Mattis, few in either party will object and many will laud the choice as evidence Trump will have a thoughtful, experienced strategist at his side. (It should surprise no one that Flynn reportedly opposes Mattis, as he would anyone who is more impressive than he and more likely to get the president’s respect.) If, however, Trump decides to go with a civilian, several figures would garner instant praise.

Former senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.) was an adviser to Mitt Romney in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns (and hence would be a good fit if Romney gets State). He is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, and as a former member of the Senate would sail through the confirmation hearings, no doubt. More recently, he has been a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies’ National Security 2020 Project. (“As the leader of a team of AEI defense experts, Talent is working on the formulation and promulgation of a new paradigm for defense policy, planning, and budgeting,” his bio reads.)

Another possibility would be former U.N. ambassador John Bolton. Bolton has been reportedly considered for secretary of state, but he is as knowledgeable as other candidates on military readiness, nuclear proliferation, etc. Moreover, his experience in government and his ability to navigate the bureaucracy and intra-administration politics would surely come in handy.

Other credible names for defense secretary include Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). There is no shortage of credible candidates. Trump’s decisions for defense and state secretaries are arguably his most important — and most revealing. A second military figure in a key role would confirm there is nothing “normal” about this administration.