From reviving torture to bashing U.S. allies, Trump doesn’t always see eye to eye with the retired Marine who could be his defense secretary. But both are decidedly hawkish toward Iran.
If President-elect Donald Trump picks Gen. James Mattis to be his secretary of defense, the retired Marine and combat veteran may be a moderating influence on the impulsive incoming commander in chief. But Mattis shares a hawkish view of Iran echoed by others in Trump’s national security team, raising the potential specter of a conflict with Tehran.
The president-elect’s hints that he will nominate Mattis for the job have raised hopes among conservative policy experts and some lawmakers in Congress that the former commander could add strategic perspective and prudence to a Trump White House sorely in need of both. Revered as a war-fighting legend in the Marine Corps, the “warrior monk” is also well-steeped in history and strategy and carries around a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.”
Trump, a novice in foreign affairs, has often relied on his instincts and his shoot-from-the-hip style throughout his career in real estate and, more recently, as a presidential candidate. And given Trump’s isolationist campaign trail rhetoric and trashing of U.S. alliances, some former defense officials and lawmakers believe Mattis could possibly steer the president-elect and his national security team away from hasty action or a radical break with America’s traditional foreign policy.
“I think one of the reasons you see such enthusiasm for Gen. Mattis is because people hope that will be the case,” said Eric Edelman, who held a senior Defense Department post in President George W. Bush’s administration.
“How it will really work, what kind of advice Trump will take, are all propositions that remain to be proven,” Edelman said.
Nominating Mattis, who only retired from active military service three years ago, also will test a long-established principle of civilian control of the armed forces. Trump has already appointed a retired three-star Army lieutenant general — Mike Flynn — as his national security advisor. At least two other retired generals have met with Trump as possible candidates for secretary of state or other top positions: Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly and Army Gen. David Petraeus. Only Mattis would require a congressional exemption to serve as a civilian secretary of defense.
It’s unclear if Mattis’s forceful personality will ultimately gain Trump’s ear and shape his decisions. Yet his moderating influence is already on display: Trump told the New York Times last week that after a conversation with Mattis, the president-elect re-examined his views on waterboarding and torturing terrorist suspects, a stump speech staple. Trump said he was “surprised” Mattis didn’t think such tactics were useful and that the president-elect came away “impressed by that answer.”
Mattis is famous for his blunt, salty language when speaking to troops preparing for battle. But the retired four-star general has often displayed a nuanced understanding of geopolitics that contrasts with Trump’s black-and-white view of the world, say officials and officers who have worked with Mattis. His nomination would also serve to reassure prospective Republican appointees to the Pentagon, many of whom are ambivalent about signing up to work for the Trump administration, given the president-elect’s off-the-cuff remarks and nativist “America First” rhetoric during the campaign.
Mattis “could be a mature voice in the room,” a congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, however, Mattis seems closer to other Trump advisors and most Republican lawmakers. In a speech last April, Mattis ranked Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and cited Tehran’s hostile rhetoric toward Israel and Persian Gulf states.
Mattis sharply criticized President Barack Obama over the nuclear deal negotiated with Tehran last year. His view of the danger posed by Iran, coupled with the hawkish outlook shared by Flynn and Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), could pave the way for heightened U.S. tensions with Tehran.
Mattis led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, overseeing U.S. forces across the Middle East. He later said his first three questions every day during those years were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” A former Centcom official told FP that Mattis spent much of his time there focused on Iran and the potential threats it poses.
Mattis “was very concerned about Iran’s activities in the region — shipment of arms, the building of proxies for terrorism,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The general gamed out ways to “understand how Iran looks at us, how they’re deterred by us and are influenced by our behavior, and [to control] the Iranian reaction to what the United States is doing,” the Centcom official recalled.
Mattis would eventually be forced out of his job at Centcom in 2013 after a series of disagreements with the White House over Iran. He argued — unsuccessfully — for a tougher military posture designed to deter Tehran from backing its proxies in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, a view shared by many others at Centcom.
But unlike other hawks advising Trump, Mattis is more realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East, former colleagues said. He recognizes that a unilateral bid to dump the Iran nuclear deal — which was negotiated between major powers and Tehran — might harm American interests. Instead, the colleagues said, Mattis probably would argue for enforcing every provision of the nuclear deal, insisting that Iran abide by the agreement “to the letter.”
“He’s not a rash guy. He’s not looking to tear the lid of this thing and just duke it out,” the congressional staffer said.
The former Centcom official agreed. “You have a number of people who are coming onto the [Trump] team who are going to take a strong line on Iran,” but “Mattis really brings an enormous range of experience on these issues that would be very important and that requires you, frankly, to be very realistic in understanding the vast capabilities and limitations of American power.”
In his April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Mattis questioned the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal but said “there’s no going back” on it and the next president would have to live with it.
He also suggested the United States would have to be ready for a potential confrontation with Iran, saying, “We’re going to have to plan for the worst.”
Mattis has continued to attract a cult-like following among Marines, who refer to him affectionately as “Mad Dog” and revel in his blunt advice to troops: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
Yet he also is a voracious reader, fond of quoting Marcus Aurelius and comfortably fluent in ancient history and geopolitics. He has a relentless work ethic and is a demanding boss, with no patience for shoddy work or missed deadlines.
Widely respected across the government, Mattis likely would win broad and swift support from both parties in Congress if he is nominated as the next Pentagon chief.
But lawmakers would have to make an exception for Mattis. By law, a defense secretary must have retired from active military service at least seven years before taking the job. His nomination would require amending current legislation, thereby expending some of the new administration’s already shaky political capital. Congress has granted such an exception only once before, in 1950, for retired Gen. George Marshall, when he served as President Harry Truman’s defense secretary to manage the Korean War.
But Marshall was a staff officer and a diplomat. And although Mattis has a breadth of experience from his 44 years in uniform, he may struggle as a civilian administrator of the sprawling Defense Department bureaucracy and its $600 billion budget. Some senior defense officials are wary of Mattis possibly taking over the Pentagon and applying military-style leadership to a largely civilian workforce.
Retired generals have had a mixed record in recent years in the transition to running a civilian agency. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as secretary of state under George W. Bush, got high marks from the diplomatic corps for his management of the State Department. But Petraeus rubbed some veteran spies the wrong way with his approach as CIA chief.
It’s unclear if the House and Senate armed services committees would hold pre-nomination hearings about a Mattis waiver before his nomination testimony. Such hearings could allow lawmakers from both parties a chance to question the incoming administration on national security policies that were only addressed in broad brushstrokes in the presidential campaign.
Having several recently retired military officers serving in top administration positions would mark an unprecedented break with convention. It could send a charged symbolic message that the top brass favor one political party over another and that civilian leadership has failed and only former generals can repair the damage.
“They are all independently extremely capable as individuals, but appointing them all creates an optics problem,” said Edelman, now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Trump reportedly mulled naming Flynn to the Pentagon job. But unlike Mattis, the retired Army intelligence chief would have faced stiff opposition in Congress to amending the law and allowing him to take the post.
Whoever gets the job, one of the first big issues the incoming defense secretary will face is the Pentagon’s budget, which is currently funded through a stopgap measure slated to expire next March.
Trump has promised to dramatically increase defense spending by roughly $100 billion over the course of his first term to pay for dozens of new warships, hundreds of planes, and tens of thousands of additional troops — increases that have not come along with any proposed change in U.S. strategy.
But it’s unclear how the massive arms buildup would be funded, as Trump has also promised a big tax cut and a major investment in infrastructure projects across the country. The battle over military spending could spark feuds not only between Republican and Democratic lawmakers but among different factions inside the GOP — with some fiscal conservatives reluctant to raise federal spending even for defense.
If confirmed as defense secretary, Mattis would likely see eye to eye with the top-ranking military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, a fellow Marine and longtime friend who at one point served as a subordinate to Mattis.
Both Mattis and Dunford take a dim view of some of the personnel changes carried out by the Obama administration, particularly those focused on integrating transgender troops and opening up combat jobs to female soldiers. In 2011, the Obama administration repealed a ban on gay troops from serving openly. Last year, the Pentagon lifted a prohibition on women serving in ground combat jobs. And in June, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened the door to allow openly transgender people to serve in the military. The changes likely will come under strict scrutiny from a Trump administration, and the transgender rules could even be reversed.
In a book published this year about civilian-military relations co-edited with FP contributor Kori Schake, Mattis warned of the danger of civilian leaders with a “progressive agenda” imposing “social change” on the military.
“We fear that an uninformed public is permitting political leaders to impose an accretion of social conventions that are diminishing the combat power of our military,” Mattis and Schake wrote.
Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Kabul