For many, and even for self-proclaimed progressives, Donald Trump’s pick to be secretary of defense, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, is a light in the darkness—a kind of oasis in the midst of a vast reactionary desert. And so it seems, all of us can now breathe a sigh of relief: After all these weeks, there’s finally an adult in the room.
What’s not to like? Mattis, as has been reported, is not just a warrior, he’s an intellectual. Entire websites are dedicated to his pithy bon mots (“be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”), which, along with his skillful handling of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave him the sobriquet “Mad Dog.” His gruff and outspoken attitude has Pattonesque appeal. But he’s also accumulated a library of thousands. And, as we’re gushingly reminded, he carries a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations wherever he goes, a sure sign that he’s a smart guy.
But all the ink spilled on Mattis as a snubber of convention, gifted combat commander, sophisticated strategist, ardent bibliophile and reader of dead Romans misses the most important fact about him: Mattis is a Marine. The Marines aren’t just another service, like the Army, Air Force or Navy. They are a tightknit military tribe, with their own beliefs, myths and philosophies. They view themselves as elite, different from the other services. They’re the closest thing our military has to a cult.
The military officials I spoke with say that Mattis is the quintessential Marine; it defines everything he does and believes, from how he treats his soldiers and disciplines his commanders to how he views the world. Most critically, perhaps, for the United States and its future, Mattis has embraced the Marine Corps’ longstanding grievance against Iran, one that goes back to the 1980s.
In fact, Mattis’ anti-Iran animus is so intense that it led President Barack Obama to replace him as Centcom commander. It was a move that roiled Mattis admirers, seeding claims that the president didn’t like “independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders.” But Mattis’ Iran antagonism also concerns many of the Pentagon’s most senior officers, who disagree with his assessment and openly worry whether his Iran views are based on a sober analysis or whether he’s simply reflecting a 30-plus-year-old hatred of the Islamic Republic that is unique to his service. It’s a situation that could lead to disagreement within the Pentagon over the next four years—but also, senior Pentagon officials fear, to war.
“It’s in his blood,” one senior Marine officer told me. “It’s almost like he wants to get even with them.”
Ages ago, back in 2008, I was a guest speaker at a dinner at a San Francisco hotel owned by the Marines Memorial Association. I don’t remember much about the presentation, but the after-dinner gathering at the upstairs Leatherneck Lounge (low lights, burnished mahogany, plush chairs) was unforgettable. Among those in attendance were some of the Marines Corps’ living legends, including a former head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Hoar, and retired Col. Timothy Geraghty, on whose watch 241 Americans, 220 of whom were Marines, were killed by an Iran-trained suicide truck bomber in Beirut in 1983.
The gathering confirmed what I had long known about the Marines: They know how to hold a grudge. Their anti-Iran grudge goes back to Beirut but also includes the Persian Gulf reflagging operation of the late 1980s (where the Iranian navy harassed Kuwaiti oil tankers, whom we placed under our protection by having them fly the American flag) and Iran’s support for Shia militias killing Americans in Iraq. “Truth is, we’ve been at war on and off with Iran since 1979,” Hoar, who headed up the U.S. reflagging operation, told me that night. “But mostly on.” Geraghty, whose stellar career was short-circuited by the Beirut bombing, was more terse: “We’ll get ’em,” he said.
Iran is on the mind of nearly every senior Marine I’ve ever come in contact with, including Mattis. It was back in 2012, while he was still in uniform, that Mattis said that the three gravest threats facing the U.S. were “Iran, Iran, Iran.” In the years since his retirement in 2013, he’s been even more outspoken. He repeated his “Iran, Iran, Iran” mantra last April (in addition to an entirely predictable reference to the Beirut barracks bombing) during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and then explained himself. Iran, he said, is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” and not really a nation-state at all but “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.”
Then, Mattis linked Iran to the rise of ISIS. “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,” he said. “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.” What Mattis said next was eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush’s claim that because Al Qaeda wasn’t attacking Saddam Hussein, the two must be linked: “I would just point out one question for you to look into,” Mattis intoned. “What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”
Or maybe not. Mattis’ ISIS-is-Iran claim is breathtakingly short on facts. The Iranians are arming Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, who are fighting ISIS in Mosul, and Tehran has made little secret of its opposition to the Sunni terrorist group. Back in July, Iranian television said its government had uncovered an ISIS plot to set off bombs in Tehran, leading to the arrest of 10 terrorist operatives. “The U.S. has lots of disagreements with Iran,” a senior Pentagon civilian official told me on Friday, “but what to do about ISIS isn’t one of them. We want them defeated, and so do they.”
Linking ISIS and Iran is worrisome for other reasons—as it seems to put the Tehran government back in America’s cross hairs, as the first step in rekindling Bush’s “axis of evil,” where nations and governments were seen as forming a common anti-American front, despite their differences. “It’s just not that simple,” this senior Pentagon civilian official told me, “and Jim Mattis ought to know that. He’s been kicking around the region for a long time; he knows how complicated it is.”
Mattis supporters say it would be a mistake to paint the retired Marine as a moral crusader. Rather, they say, he’s an old-fashioned America-firster who couples his belief in military strength with a sober hesitation to use it.
But others worry that he might be to eager to get into a fight. “Back when he was Centcom commander,” the senior Marine officer says, “Jim was really focused on Iran, and was well aware that any kind of confrontation with them could easily spin out of control. He once did a study of it, and completely shut down Navy officers who told him the Iranian military was no match for the Americans. He just rejected that. Totally. Which is why I find his later comments, in which he seemed to be picking a fight with them, almost inexplicable. But there it is—that’s the danger. It’s Beirut and Iraq, really.”
It was also this Iran obsession that led Obama to force Mattis’ retirement back in January 2013. In the weeks before being told he would be replaced as Centcom commander, he requested a third aircraft carrier be added to the two regularly deployed in the Persian Gulf. His request was denied because, he was told, the carrier was needed in the Pacific. But Mattis was undeterred, not only arguing the point with national security adviser Tom Donilon but also taking actions in the Gulf the White House considered provocative. The back and forth got ugly: When confronted again by Donilon, one of Mattis’ senior aides told me, the Centcom commander snapped at him: “You’re not in the chain of command; I don’t take orders from you.”
So it was that, several weeks later, and without warning, Mattis was handed a note telling him he was being replaced. The president hadn’t even bothered to call him, one of the reasons the decision set off a mini-firestorm. Mattis defenders stepped up, pointing out that Obama would do well to heed the advice of a commander who was simply warning him about the consequences of sidling up to a country like Iran. Mattis’ dismissal also fed the resentment of the far right, where Obama’s removal of officers (like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal) was characterized as a “purge.” Obama’s team, it was claimed, was more concerned with political correctness than with facing down America’s enemies.
Of course, there’s the opposing point of view: that Obama’s purge of Petraeus, McChrystal and Mattis was the result of their missteps, not his. Petraeus resigned as the result of an affair, made public while he was serving as Obama’s CIA director, in which he shared classified information with his girlfriend, while McChrystal was fired for failing to police the inappropriate pronouncements of his alcohol-fueled staff. Mattis, on the other hand, was forced out for what was close to insubordination: that is, while Trump notoriously claimed that Obama “reduced the Generals to rubble,” they mostly did it themselves. Or perhaps, in the Mattis case, Obama decided to reduce him to rubble because he feared that his Centcom commander wanted to do that to Tehran.
Donald Trump likes comparing Mattis to World War II’s most successful generals, and, most especially, to George Patton. “They say he’s the closest thing to George Patton that we have, and it’s about time,” Trump said during his victory speech in Cincinnati on Friday night, where he announced Mattis’ appointment.
Is it? Putting a Patton at the Pentagon would have been the last thing that a president like Truman or Eisenhower would have done, primarily because the talents of battlefield brawlers are not easily translatable to an institution where, particularly in the nuclear age, cooler heads need to prevail. That certainly wasn’t true for Patton, who, having helped defeat the Germans, was aching for a fight against the Russians. Perhaps Trump believes Mattis’ worldview will fit in well with those he will now oversee—that senior military leaders want a tougher line, particularly against Iran.
But that won’t be true. In fact, Mattis’ anti-Iran animus and his often over-the-top description of its “malign influence” places him at odds with a number of officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff—most notably, with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, who also happened to be chief of staff to Mattis when Mattis was the commander of the 1st Marine Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To have a smooth operation at the Pentagon, “Fighting Joe” will have to get along with a man he once saluted—and Mattis will have to respect Dunford’s role as the president’s chief military adviser, even when the two disagree on key military questions. The two are not only friends, they also fought side by side in the same war, but the issue seems in doubt—and the doubt starts with whether Iran is the threat that Mattis thinks it is.
Somewhere in Fighting Joe’s office is a thick volume labeled “National Military Strategy.” While the document has not been finalized, it details the military’s thinking on the threats facing the U.S., and how the military plans to respond to them. The most important part of the NMS is its five-part “Annex,” which lists what the U.S. military, and Dunford, believes are America’s greatest threats, what several senior military officers recently described to me as “the four-plus-one”: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and (the “plus one”), “VEOs”—violent extremist organizations.
The NMS contradicts Mattis’ worldview. The gravest threat to America, according to the document, is not “Iran, Iran, Iran,” but “Russia, Russia, Russia.” Dunford has emphasized this in public testimony, but not without some disagreement among his top officers, who head up the powerful Joint Staff, a military headquarters that provides the JCS chairman with strategic direction. Select Joint Staff officers, I was recently told by a ranking senior member of the staff, have pointed out to Dunford that while Russia remains the most dangerous threat to the U.S. (because of its nuclear arsenal) it is not the most likely threat. The most likely threats are the VEOs—like ISIS. Iran comes in at Number 3.
The NMS is likely to be at or near the top of his agenda when Mattis takes the Pentagon’s reins in January. It will be a test of whether Dunford will be as independent as the law allows, or whether Mattis will insist he change its conclusions to reflect his own, anti-Iran views. While the NMS is the JCS chairman’s assessment, a part of his statutory responsibility, it will be difficult for Mattis and Dunford to provide Trump, or the Congress, with contradictory points of view.
Of course, the real issue will be who will have the president’s ear when it comes to military affairs: Will it be Mattis, a former general in a civilian’s job, or will it be the JCS chairman, what the law describes as “the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, and the principal military advisor to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council”? Of course, given their history, Mattis and Dunford could find common ground. But then, and considering the sometimes tense relationship between the senior military and any number of defense secretaries (Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind), their disagreement could become a donnybrook.
For North Carolina professor Richard Kohn, one of America’s premier observers of civil-military relations, the question hinges on Mattis’ character—and his understanding of democracy. Kohn has met Mattis and once heard him discuss civil-military relations. Kohn waves off concerns that the appointment of Mattis as defense secretary will “militarize” the chain of command.
“That’s an exaggerated fear,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation. “It’s just not going to happen, at least not under Jim Mattis’ watch. I was really impressed by Mattis—he understands the law, understands the importance of civilian control of the military, and understands the chairman’s statutory responsibility. I was impressed by how adamant he was on this point.” Kohn also believes that the fact that Mattis and Dunford served together is a positive. “I think we can assume that they’ve had a good working relationship, which is not something you can say about all civilians and the military in previous administrations. This could be a real plus.”
Mattis’ critics make sound arguments about why he should not be Trump’s secretary of defense. The Pentagon doesn’t need another warrior, they say, but a manager—an official familiar with budgets, interservice turf wars and the daily drudgery of papers, memos and studies. He’ll have to ride herd over officers he knows, and probably fire some of them. And he can’t pull rank or give orders—or he’ll be slow rolled by a bureaucracy that has made foot-dragging a high art. He will need to glad hand and get along with John McCain (McCain says he admires Mattis, but he has also regularly clashed with military officers who disagree with him on even minor issues) and Obama admirers. Erin Simpson, who advised the U.S. military senior command in Afghanistan, put it best: “The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit.”
Another senior military officer, a Mattis partisan, adds that the new secretary of defense’s real problem “will not be in the building” but in the White House, where Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security adviser (and a retired three-star Army officer), has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be outranked. “And by a Marine? Good God, that’s going to be entertaining,” this officer says, a remark reflecting the often bumpy infighting between the two services.
But the harshest criticism comes from those wary of Mattis’ Iran animus. “He’s not a neo-con,” the senior Pentagon civilian official said, “so we’re not going to have a new Rumsfeld or [Paul] Wolfowitz running around here, but his views on Islam strike me as perverse. This whole thing about ISIS and Iran is just wrong, but that’s not even the point. We’re going to find out who this guy really is when someone who’s just as smart tells him he’s full of shit. And on ISIS and Iran, believe me, he’s full of shit.”
Mattis partisans make sound arguments too. They point out that while the warrior monk worries about Iran, he’s argued against scrapping Obama’s Iran nuclear arms agreement—a point of view at odds with what Trump has said. Mattis has also come out against the use of torture, telling Trump that giving terrorists a couple of beers and a pack of cigarettes works better than waterboarding. And Mattis, who talks tough, was a commander who insisted his troops treat Iraqis with respect, to the point of counseling his commanders on the proper way to respect Muslim customs, a position in stark contrast to his statements on what he bitingly describes as the dangers of “political Islam.”
Mattis partisans also repeat the well-worn but debatable belief that having seen the face of war, former military officers rarely recommend it as a course of action. Which is simply to conclude that seared by the vision of Marines fighting street by street in Fallujah—library or no library—Mattis will meet his real test when, on some dark night, an Iranian speedboat purposely (or accidentally) fires on an American destroyer and President Trump gives the order to “bomb the hell out of them.” The test then, the real test of leadership, will be whether Mattis says, “Yes, sir, Mr. President …” or whether he nods and says, “Yes, sir, Mr. President, but ….” In truth, and in light of the contradictory evidence at hand, we simply have no idea what, at that crucial moment, he will say.
But we’re about to find out.
Powered by WPeMatico