Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

What we can expect from James Mattis

Other than those who are upset by his blunt language, most observers and pundits think that the choice of Jim Mattis to replace David Petraeus  as commander, central command, was nothing short of inspired. Mattis, widely known for his blunt talk — and for that very reason reviled by the left — was actually on ...

LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images
LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images
LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Other than those who are upset by his blunt language, most observers and pundits think that the choice of Jim Mattis to replace David Petraeus  as commander, central command, was nothing short of inspired. Mattis, widely known for his blunt talk -- and for that very reason reviled by the left -- was actually on the way out when the CENTCOM job opened up. Ray Odierno had been nominated to replace Mattis as commander of the joint forces command, and the job of commandant of the Marine Corps, which was rumored to have been promised to Mattis, had gone to Jim Amos. There was, it seemed nothing left for the hero of Fallujah to do, but to retire.

Then came the McChrystal interview, and the events that led to Petraeus's transfer to Afghanistan. Although many observers hoped Mattis would take over CENTCOM, it was far from a sure thing. The man who had said it was "fun to shoot Afghans" and coined enough phrases so that they are now called Mattisisms might not have been a good fit for an administration that had already been criticized by its faithful for providing yet another pedestal for General "betray us."

But Mattis brings a lot more to the table than being a Marine's Marine -- which should be enough for most people anyway. He refuses to take any concept or doctrine at face value, without analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. And he acts on his conclusions. A good example was the memorandum he sent to his staff at the joint forces command shortly after he arrived in Norfolk. "Effects based operations," the notion that one might calculate enemy responses to calibrated attacks, was all the rage in military circles. Mattis informed his staff that he did not like the phrase, or the concept it represented, and ordered that it be dropped from the JFCOM vocabulary. In other words, buzz words, and the ideas behind them, are simply not in this warfighter's vocabulary.

Other than those who are upset by his blunt language, most observers and pundits think that the choice of Jim Mattis to replace David Petraeus  as commander, central command, was nothing short of inspired. Mattis, widely known for his blunt talk — and for that very reason reviled by the left — was actually on the way out when the CENTCOM job opened up. Ray Odierno had been nominated to replace Mattis as commander of the joint forces command, and the job of commandant of the Marine Corps, which was rumored to have been promised to Mattis, had gone to Jim Amos. There was, it seemed nothing left for the hero of Fallujah to do, but to retire.

Then came the McChrystal interview, and the events that led to Petraeus’s transfer to Afghanistan. Although many observers hoped Mattis would take over CENTCOM, it was far from a sure thing. The man who had said it was "fun to shoot Afghans" and coined enough phrases so that they are now called Mattisisms might not have been a good fit for an administration that had already been criticized by its faithful for providing yet another pedestal for General "betray us."

But Mattis brings a lot more to the table than being a Marine’s Marine — which should be enough for most people anyway. He refuses to take any concept or doctrine at face value, without analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. And he acts on his conclusions. A good example was the memorandum he sent to his staff at the joint forces command shortly after he arrived in Norfolk. "Effects based operations," the notion that one might calculate enemy responses to calibrated attacks, was all the rage in military circles. Mattis informed his staff that he did not like the phrase, or the concept it represented, and ordered that it be dropped from the JFCOM vocabulary. In other words, buzz words, and the ideas behind them, are simply not in this warfighter’s vocabulary.

Mattis, as a senior four-star, is one of the few military men to have the gravitas to face off against Petraeus if he deems it necessary to do so. That may not be required: Petraeus reportedly pushed for Mattis to get the job, and both men understand the nature of combat against irregular forces like few other senior American officers. Still, Mattis and Petraeus will generate a degree of creative tension that can only benefit American objectives in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration shot itself in the foot when it announced that it would begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan a year from now. Having Petraeus and Mattis in charge of Afghan operations, supported by talented three stars like Bill Caldwell, who oversees the training of Afghan forces, at least takes the sting out of that announcement, and underscores the notion that Washington remains serious about defeating the Taliban. Equally important, having the "A-Team" of military leaders in charge of the Afghan mission begs the question of whether any withdrawal of forces will take place, if Petraeus and Mattis recommend against it. We shall see.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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