Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Mattis vs. Donilon: Wow, no one even called to tell him he was being replaced? (UPDATED)

I am told that General Mattis was traveling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the ...

Cpl. Cassandra Flowers/DVIDS
Cpl. Cassandra Flowers/DVIDS
Cpl. Cassandra Flowers/DVIDS

I am told that General Mattis was traveling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him -- he hadn't received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House.

I asked a friend about that. He wrote back:
...the commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government.

But there's also the matter of common courtesy to an uncommon man. Here is what one person wrote to me: "What message does it send to the Services when the one leader known for his war-fighting rather than diplomatic or bureaucratic political skills is retired early via one sentence in the Pentagon's daily press handout? Even in battle, Mattis was inclusive of all under his command. He took the time to pull together his driver and guards after every day's rotation on the battlefield, telling them what he thought he had learned and asking them for input. Surely senior administration officials could have found the time to be gracious. But they didn't."  Bing West, admittedly a friend of Mattis and fellow Marine, tells me: "It was injudicious to truncate Mattis's command time because his toughness was well-known across the Middle East. The image of a determined warfighter is precisely what a commander-in-chief should cherish when trying to exert leverage upon a recalcitrant Iran."
ADDENDUM:

I am told that General Mattis was traveling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House.

I asked a friend about that. He wrote back:

…the commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government.

But there’s also the matter of common courtesy to an uncommon man. Here is what one person wrote to me: “What message does it send to the Services when the one leader known for his war-fighting rather than diplomatic or bureaucratic political skills is retired early via one sentence in the Pentagon’s daily press handout? Even in battle, Mattis was inclusive of all under his command. He took the time to pull together his driver and guards after every day’s rotation on the battlefield, telling them what he thought he had learned and asking them for input. Surely senior administration officials could have found the time to be gracious. But they didn’t.”  Bing West, admittedly a friend of Mattis and fellow Marine, tells me: “It was injudicious to truncate Mattis’s command time because his toughness was well-known across the Middle East. The image of a determined warfighter is precisely what a commander-in-chief should cherish when trying to exert leverage upon a recalcitrant Iran.”

ADDENDUM:

Pentagon spokesman George Little sent along this note on Friday afternoon:

I reject in the strongest possible terms your reporting about leadership changes at CENTCOM.  The fact of the matter is that Gen. Mattis discussed the timing for a change of command at CENTCOM with the Secretary last fall.  At that time, Gen. Mattis was asked for recommendations on who might succeed him at CENTCOM.  It would be wildly inaccurate to suggest anything else.

I wrote back to Mr. Little these questions:

Can you answer these questions? They are yes or no, I think: Are you flatly saying that Mattis was in fact called? Or are you saying that Mattis was not called but should not have been surprised? Or are you saying something else?

When he didn’t address those questions, I sent them again and said I would publish his statement along with the comment that he wouldn’t address my specific questions. This led him to write back:

He wasn’t called.  He personally met with the Secretary. This wasn’t a surprise. You can’t say I declined to address your questions.

I think Mr. Little is emphatically denying something I didn’t say. That is, I think Mattis knew he would be leaving eventually, which would lead to such a conversation with the secretary, but was in fact surprised by the timing and the lack of notice about a press release announcing his successor being issued.

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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