He’s the only candidate who’s been mentioned in connection with the position for weeks. Trump trusts him well enough already to have apparently flip-flopped on waterboarding because of something Mattis said to him about the practice being ineffective. He was a shoo-in for the job.
No decision has been made yet with regard to Secretary of Defense. #TrumpTransition
— Jason Miller (@JasonMillerinDC) December 1, 2016
That’s Trump’s spokesman, responding to this WaPo story that appeared earlier this afternoon:
President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis to be secretary of defense, according to people familiar with the decision, nominating a former senior military officer who led operations across the Middle East to run the Pentagon less than four years after he hung up his uniform…
Like Trump, Mattis favors a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”…
“The president-elect is smart to think about putting someone as respected as Jim Mattis in this role,” said a former senior Pentagon official. “He’s a warrior, scholar and straight shooter — literally and figuratively. He speaks truth to everyone and would certainly speak truth to this new commander in chief.”
But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s personnel choices, said: “If there’s any concern at all, it’s the principle of civilian control over the military. This role was never intended to be a kind of Joint Chiefs of Staff on steroids, and that’s the biggest single risk tied to Mattis. For Mattis, the biggest risk for him personally is that he will have a national security adviser in the form of Mike Flynn whose management style and extreme views may arch Mattis’s eyebrows and cause conflict over time. It’s no fun to be secretary of defense if you have to constantly feud with the White House.”
Yeah, Trump has a lot of generals around him. There’s Mike Flynn at NSA, Mattis at Defense, and possibly David Petraeus (with whom Mattis co-wrote the U.S. military counterinsurgency manual) at State. Federal law bars recently retired military personnel from serving as Secretary of Defense precisely because Congress doesn’t like the idea of the military being in charge of the military. You’re supposed to be out of the service for seven years before you’re eligible to lead the Pentagon; Mattis has been retired for just four, which means Congress will need to pass a new law to install him. That raises an interesting question: Would Senate Democrats try to block Mattis by filibustering a bill to change the retirement requirement? Obama fired Mattis as head of Central Command and Mattis has been an outspoken critic of some of his policies in retirement, so there’s no love lost between him and Democrats. Dems could ground their opposition in principle too rather than making it personal to the general. “We’re not against Mattis,” Chuck Schumer might say, “we’re for the concept of civilian control of the military.” Their base would like the idea of sinking one of Trump’s top cabinet picks. Seems hard to believe McConnell couldn’t find eight Democratic votes to help kill a filibuster, though, particularly given how many red-state Dems are worried about 2018.
Anyway. Mattis’s selection is being received almost jubilantly among righties on social media who have followed his career. He’s known to the public mostly for his “Mattis-isms” (“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”) but he’s respected as a brilliant strategist and, importantly, an independent thinker, which is what you want around Trump. The last place for a yes-man in the strongman’s cabinet is at Defense. His mystique is grounded in him being a sort of warrior-poet, known for his toughness and bravado in the field but also renowned for being extremely well read and carrying around the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He is … not a natural match personality-wise for Trump except that they’re both highly “alpha” in very different ways. He’s also not a natural match for Trump on policy either. Here’s Mattis on Russia and the wider Pax Americana in May of last year:
Speaking in Washington, D.C., retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said, “the perception is we’re pulling back” on America’s commitment to its allies and partners, leaving them adrift in a changing world. “We have strategic atrophy.”
He said Russia’s military moves against its neighbors—taking Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine is “much more severe, more serious” than Washington and the European Union are treating it…
He said since World War II the United States helped create a world order—diplomatically [United Nations] , economically [World Bank and International Monetary Fund], culturally and militarily.
By renewing that combination of inspiration and intimidation, “I have no doubt we can turn this around.”
A little more from April of this year, around the time Trump was locking up the GOP nomination. Bear in mind that Mattis once served as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation at NATO:
When journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published his New Yorker profile of Obama’s foreign policy in March, Mattis said he thought he had printed out the wrong article and was reading comments by bombastic Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump regarding U.S. allies instead.
“It wasn’t Trump; it was the president saying that our allies are free riders and that sort of thing,” he said. “For a sitting U.S. president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts.”
That’s a critique of Obama but Trump has spoken sporadically of NATO as if it’s a protection racket and time for our “clients” to up their payments. If Trump ends up with Mattis at Defense and Mitt Romney at State, he might go from Putin fan to Russia hawk practically overnight. (Although Mike Flynn will have something to say about that.) Mattis has also made a point of singling out Iran for its pernicious influence in the Middle East, once going so far as to say, “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief” — an interesting contrast to Trump, who wants to buddy up to Iran’s ally in Syria, Vladimir Putin, precisely because he thinks the U.S. and Russia should multiply their firepower against ISIS. He and Mattis might have to huddle about that. Also interestingly, though, Mattis doesn’t want to tear up the Iran deal. Quote: “I don’t think that we can take advantage of some new president’s — Republican or Democrat — and say we’re not going to live up to our word on this agreement. I believe we would be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have near the impact of an allied approach.” He’s a warrior but he doesn’t always favor war.
The only piece I’ve seen questioning putting Mattis at Defense is this one, which raises an interesting point about whether one of the world’s most notorious bureaucracies is really a natural fit for a Marine general known for making things happen:
Mattis is, after all a deeply thoughtful and capable person committed to his fellow warfighters and to our nation’s interests. But this brings us to my second point: Warriors make for bad bureaucrats. Rather few officers have shown success on the battlefield and in the hallways of official Washington. Gen. Al Gray comes to mind, as does Gen. David Petraeus (though his combat command came late in his career). And the last general to serve as defense secretary, Gen. George Marshall, was a staff officer. It was his experience as Army Chief of Staff during World War II that qualified him to be secretary of defense, after serving as secretary of state. Mattis’ record as a combat commander is unsurpassed, but he has never shown much interest in the staff assignments. He did serve a tour in Washington in the late 1990s (as military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense), but unlike other four-stars, Mattis never seemed particularly interested in coming back. And while his tours at Central Command and the now-defunct Joint Forces Command are to his credit, they also reveal the limits of his skills at bureaucratic infighting, given he was driven out from the former post after a falling out with the Obama administration on its Iran policy.
The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this sh*t. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.
That point is well taken, and under a different president it might be disqualifying. The thing about Trump, though, is that he’s Trump. The reason so many people like the idea of Mattis at Defense isn’t because they think he’ll be a whiz at straightening out “budgets, white papers, and service rivalries” but because they think he’ll straighten out Trump when Trump is inclined to do something stupid. There’s no way to tell who’ll have the president’s ear at key moments but Trump evidently respects Mattis enough to reconsider waterboarding because of his opinion. That’s a good sign. Unless he turns out to be a McCain/Graham-style omni-interventionist, which I doubt given his Iran-deal stance, it’s hard to see how Mattis wouldn’t be a good influence on Trump in all sorts of ways. That’s why so many people are excited about his nomination.
Via the Federalist, here’s two minutes of him addressing the Heritage Foundation last year about political Islam.