Mattis and the Revolving Door

by David Isenberg

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated former General Motors president Charles Erwin Wilson as secretary of defense.

That sparked a controversy during his confirmation hearings based on his large stockholdings in General Motors. Reluctant to sell the stock, valued at the time at more than $2.5 million, Wilson only agreed to do so under committee pressure. During the hearings, when asked if he could make a decision that would be adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively. But he added that he could not conceive of such a situation “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” This statement has frequently been misquoted as “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

Nearly 40 years later in 1989, Carlyle, the private equity firm, took off when it hired Frank Carlucci, a former defense secretary and deputy director of the CIA. Carlucci was able to open doors in Washington, allowing Carlyle to participate in many lucrative deals.

And now, 27 years later, Donald Tump has nominated retired Marine Corp general James Mattis, the former director of General Dynamics, as the next secretary of defense. For the military-industrial-congressional complex it doesn’t get much better than this.

As this article in International Business Times notes:

Financial filings reviewed by International Business Times show that since taking the position in 2013, Mattis has been paid $594,369 by General Dynamics, and has amassed more than $900,000 worth of company stock. While on the General Dynamics board, Mattis testified before Congress, where he called caps on defense spending — known as the sequestration— a national security threat. “No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving,” he said during the 2015 hearing.

Much of the commentary regarding Mattis’s nomination to date has focused on his admirable military career. Many commentators assume, rightly or wrongly, that he is more moderate than, say, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been nominated to be Trump’s national security advisor.

But that ignores the dual role of a secretary of defense. Although he is expected to weigh in on national military and security strategy, his mandate does include running the Pentagon. The text of the original 1947 National Security Act which, among other things, created the position of secretary of defense, stated that his duties include running the “National Military Establishment,” which meant establishing, directing, and supervising the funding of its general policies and programs

Even though he has a deputy secretary of defense, who is traditionally expected to focus on the day-to-day management of the Pentagon bureaucracy, the secretary still bears primary responsibility. And, as The Washington Post recently reported, there is a lot to be responsible for, including staggering amounts of waste. The Post article noted that the Pentagon hired an outside consulting firm to identify ways to streamline its bureaucracy and found $125 billion worth of unneeded spending.

For even the most qualified person, running the Pentagon is daunting. There is not much in Mattis’s record to suggest that he is up to the challenge. Admittedly, it has just been a bit over three years since he retired from the Marine Corps, and there is not an extensive record of his dealings with corporate America. But what’s there suggests that his interest in and ability to stand up to corporate pressure may be lacking. His connections to Theranos, a Silicon Valley biotech company involved in blood-testing technology, suggests that he will go to great lengths to use his military connections to help his corporate buddies. He pushed the new technology while serving in the military and then, on retiring, joined the company’s corporate board. Theranos currently faces various lawsuits and regulatory compliance issues.

Mattis is far from the first flag rank officer to retire and take up a far more lucrative career in corporate America. Once upon a time it was considered unseemly for a high-ranking officer to do so, but those days are long gone. What this really reflects is the reality and allure of the revolving door.

One of the more harmful, albeit under-appreciated, aspects of the revolving door is how it affects those who begin their careers unassociated with the military sector. As one scholarly analysis noted:

Not only can it be individually profitable to enter the revolving door, but a future revolver is incentivized to conform to the system in order to create the necessary political connections that define his future value. Those who are unable to conform will not maintain their value as they will not be able to maintain their connections.

James Mattis has already demonstrated how well he has conformed to the system. If he becomes the head of the Pentagon, he will only further reinforce the connections between the military and corporate sectors.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.



  1. Luckily the US “defense department” has nothing to do with the defense of the country, as Chalmers Johnson explained in his books. That is why the Dept of Homeland Security was created the one time there was an attack. If the Pentagon could be abolished and real, productive peaceful jobs provided, imagine the difference!!!!!!! Trump would be a hero!!

  2. There is nothing new about this conundrum. A form of it no doubt existed during the Civil War.

    Mr. Isenberg doesn’t offer a solution. I don’t know if anyone has, but taking what are essentially bribes from the defence industry to use ‘contacts’ conceivably for ‘consideration’ among former colleagues in government to wield influence when it’s the American people who pay the price and records ensuring transparency are apparently not kept sounds just a bit unseemly to me. Mr. Isenberg probably thinks so too as he points out the problem. They must be sub rosa or the contacts can not efficacious. They would not survive the bright light of day. When money is involved that’s never good.

    It’s a given that military and defence industry people have qualifications which fit the Defence Department. Professors of English Literature do not. To find the right guy for Defence in the technical sense the government has to access that pool of applicants knowing that it fuels the revolving door and skews outcomes to our disadvantage. So there have to be serious disincentives. What kind?

    Do we criminalize this unseemly cronyism in high places by redefining the crime of bribery or do do we treat it as a civil matter, an ethical issue? Unregistered lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments commit felonies under FARA and then we discover that the law can not be enforced because such people, for example AIPAC and its donors, turn out to be politically untouchable. So that doesn’t always work.

    I believe that criminalization is the course to take but can’t suggest how it should be structured. But I should think that there are law review articles on topic somewhere.

  3. Allouez39 makes good points. I’d suggest that a first step is to deincentivize what is essentially organized bribery by A) enforcing far greater transparency laws, i.e., no SuperPac should be able to make anonymous contributions to elected officials, far greater limitations on revolving doors, i.e., no government official can take a job with industry for 3 years after retirement, period; and far harsher resrrictions on campaign contributions.

  4. In other words the problem has no realistic solution in the present Washington environment?

Comments are closed.