Best Defense

Roundup: Why a friend doubts Flynn is right for national security advisor, plus a bunch of Mattis commentary, and how Trump just boosted China’s hawks

Targeting for special operations is like robbing a bank branch, notes a retired military friend of mine.


Targeting for special operations is like robbing a bank branch, notes a retired military friend of mine. Being national security advisor is more like counseling the chairman of an international megabank — and so, a very different task. So he thinks Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is miscast for the post.

Another friend, also retired military, says he dislikes the idea of James Mattis as defense secretary because he worries that using generals to compensate for weak civilian leadership is the essence of militarism. But as I say below here, in this case, I am willing to make an exception.

Meantime, a third friend, retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, who now teaches at National Defense University, writes this about the allegation that General Mattis wouldn’t help medevac a wounded special operations solider early in the invasion of Afghanistan:

It appears to me that this case was investigated until the dogs died and that there were no charges or reprimands.There were lots of lives at risk in a rescue mission, not just the men on the ground. In his pitch, LTC Amerine, a fine man I am told, says Mattis was passed over for being Commandant. He was not and ended up having more combatant command time than any other officer in recent years.  If anything, his reputation in the field ran towards being too aggressive and out front.  He is a fine, and I am told, courageous man, personally and professionally. The real culprit in 2001 incident was going to war on a shoe string.  Keeping the footprint to ‘just enough’ — a disease that started in the Pentagon at the top — in order to have ‘efficient’ operations frequently left units without the trucks, helos, and howitzers that they needed.  It hurt us in Afghanistan and hurt us even worse in Iraq.  The [secretary of defense] was convinced that a force with the marginal bullet and soldier was the right force.

Finally, here’s the nut of what I wrote in the New York Times over the weekend about why I think Mattis is the right pick right now:

Usually, I’d oppose having a general as secretary of defense, because it could undermine our tradition of civilian control of the military.

But these are not normal times. The incoming president appears to be a profoundly ignorant man who often seems to act on gut impulse or on what pleases the crowd. That is a dangerous combination to have in the White House. Having known General Mattis for many years, I am confident that he will be a restraint on Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness. I also think he will provide a strong counterweight to some of those around Mr. Trump who hold isolationist or pro-Putin views.

The rest of my article is here.

Finally, since I have nowhere else to put it, here is the best summary I’ve read of the likely consequences of Trump’s phone conversation with Taiwan’s president the other day. It is from “NightWatch,” the daily intelligence analysis newsletter:

The main concern for China is that direct contact by the U.S. president-elect will be misinterpreted by elements on Taiwan as a sign of U.S. encouragement of the movement for Taiwan to formally secede from China and declare itself an independent state. The Chinese have been clear for over a decade that they will use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. The phone conversation means that China must not neglect the military capabilities that will ensure that its threat is not idle.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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