Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Obama administration’s inexplicable mishandling of Marine Gen. James Mattis

Word on the national security street is that General James Mattis is being given the bum’s rush out of his job as commander of Central Command, and is being told to vacate his office several months earlier than planned. Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Word on the national security street is that General James Mattis is being given the bum's rush out of his job as commander of Central Command, and is being told to vacate his office several months earlier than planned.

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way -- not because he went all "mad dog," which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, "And then what?"

Inquiry along these lines apparently was not welcomed -- at least in the CENTCOM view. The White House view, apparently, is that Mattis was too hawkish, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I'd call him a tough-minded realist, someone who'd rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.

Word on the national security street is that General James Mattis is being given the bum’s rush out of his job as commander of Central Command, and is being told to vacate his office several months earlier than planned.

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”

Inquiry along these lines apparently was not welcomed — at least in the CENTCOM view. The White House view, apparently, is that Mattis was too hawkish, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I’d call him a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.

Presidents should feel free to boot generals anytime they want, of course — that’s our system, and one I applaud. But ousting Mattis at this time, and in this way, seems wrong for several reasons:

TIMING: If Mattis leaves in March, as now appears likely, that means there will be a new person running CENTCOM just as the confrontation season with Iran begins to heat up again.

CIVIL-MILITARY SIGNALS: The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors. In fact, that is exactly what it (and every administration) should want. Had we had more back in 2003, we might not have made the colossal mistake of invading Iraq.

SERVICE RELATIONS: The Obamites might not recognize it, but they now have dissed the two Marine generals who are culture heroes in today’s Corps: Mattis and Anthony Zinni. The Marines have long memories. I know some who are still mad at the Navy for steaming away from the Marines left on Guadalcanal. Mattis made famous in Iraq the phrase, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” The Obama White House should keep that in mind.

I’m still a fan of President Obama. I just drove for two days down the East Coast listening to his first book, and enjoyed it enormously. But I am at the point where I don’t trust his national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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