I ask this semi-seriously: Did Trump choose Mattis for Defense mainly because he liked the idea of a SecDef nicknamed “Mad Dog”? I think Mattis is the best pick he’s made but I can’t figure out why a NATO skeptic would want someone with Mattis’s views at the Pentagon. It’s to Trump’s credit that he’s open to a cabinet member who’ll push back at him on Russia policy, but pushback is one thing and being fundamentally at odds on something as momentous as America’s NATO obligations is another. Remember, Trump has described the organization as “obsolete” in an age when terrorism, not Russia, is America’s top security threat and has questioned why the U.S should carry most of the burden for defending far-flung eastern Europe instead of its immediate neighbors. Mattis, however, describes NATO in the second clip below as the most successful alliance in modern world history. Disagreements over Russia were reportedly one of the reasons Trump ended up passing on Mitt Romney as Secretary of State, yet Mattis seems no more dovish on Russia than Romney is — and yet here he is as the soon-to-be Secretary of Defense. I don’t get it.
Even weirder, McCain’s question to Mattis in the first clip is framed explicitly in terms of threats to the current “world order.” The whole point of Trump’s foreign policy, I thought, is that the world order needs shaking up, starting with greater cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against mutual enemies like ISIS. Mattis could have said something along those lines in response to McCain, that the world order needs “reform” or that we need to view the world order through an “America First” prism, but he doesn’t. He agrees with his premise and says that the American-led world order is under the greatest threat it’s seen since World War II — and Russia is the first country he names in diagnosing that threat. How is he Trump’s nominee at Defense?
He’s actually asked about that, sort of, near the end of the second clip, when Jeanne Shaheen questions how his views square with Trump’s. That’s Mattis’s chance to spin for his boss by insisting that people have misunderstood Trump’s NATO skepticism, that all he really wants is some reforms to the organization, and so on. He doesn’t say that, though. The impression he gives is that he and others are educating Trump on the value of the alliance: Trump is “asking more questions,” he’s thinking more deeply about all of this, and, by implication, he’ll eventually come around. If that’s true then someone’s headed for a major disappointment — either Trump’s fans, who like the idea of detente with Russia and will be angry to see Trump become a Russia hawk, or Mattis himself if Trump resists the efforts to turn him into a NATO true believer. I hope for Mattis’s sake that he’s right or else this is going to be a rocky relationship, to put it mildly.
Adding to the strange fit here, Mattis also said today that he thinks the U.S. should continue to honor the Iran nuclear deal even though he’s famously hawkish towards Iran. There’s no surprise there — he’s spoken up in favor of sticking with the deal before — but it’s another point of potential contention between him and Trump on a major natsec matter.