Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Mattis as defense secretary: What it means for us, for the military, and for Trump

After eight years at Foreign Policy, here are the ten most popular Best Defense posts.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a cabinet meeting in the White House on Dec. 6, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a cabinet meeting in the White House on Dec. 6, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Next month, this column will be moving to another platform. But before we go, in celebration of eight happy and productive years at Foreign Policy, here are the most popular items ever to run on the Best Defense. This item, which originally ran on January 25, 2017, is number 4.  

I’ve known and admired General James Mattis (USMC, ret.) for years, and have written about him in a couple of books and in this blog. A few years ago, after Mattis was given the bum’s rush into retirement by the Barack Obama administration, I described him as “a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.” Or, as he instructed his Marines in Iraq, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

Another memorable comment of his in Iraq, from my book Fiasco, was, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

By contrast, I think President-elect Donald Trump will be a historic shambles, the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century. So it was with some surprise that I read Sunday morning that Mattis has become the frontrunner to become defense secretary. Trump tweeted Sunday morning that, “General James ‘Mad Dog” Mattis, who is being considered for secretary of defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!”

So, if Mattis is picked, how is his tenure running the Defense Department likely to go?

Mattis vs. Trump: Some big differences.

First, his dealings with the White House. Mattis says what he thinks. That is President-elect Trump’s reputation, but I think the fact of the matter is Trump actually says what sounds good. There’s a big difference. What’s worse, Trump seems to value unquestioning loyalty more than he does hard facts.

There are other big, even huge, differences between Mattis and Trump. Mattis, for example, is an avid reader. He prepared a reading list for his officers before deploying to Iraq in 2004 and required that it be studied. Tip to OSD-Policy: Start reading the works of Sir Hew Strachan, Mattis’ favorite strategist.

Mattis is against isolationism and a fan of what he calls “continued American engagement in the world.” He also believes that “compromise [is] … a fundamental necessity at the heart of democratic government.” (Warning to Pentagoners: Mattis also is anti-PowerPoint, which he says “makes us stupid.”) And Trump avoided the draft, while retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson calls Mattis “the finest combat leader we’ve produced since Korea.”

Mattis also is a fiscal conservative. This is not a bad thing to have for someone running the Pentagon. It also may make Mattis skeptical of some of Trump’s promise to cut taxes while boosting defense spending and making American infrastructure great again.

Most of all, I would say, Mattis is meditative. In reviewing the case of Lieutenant Colonel Allen West, an Army artillery battalion commander who fired a handgun next to the ear of a detainee he was interrogating, Mattis wrote, “this shows a commander who has lost his moral balance or watched too many Hollywood movies.” (After leaving the Army, West went on to become a one-term Republican congressman from Florida and then, of course, a Fox news commentator.)

Mattis at the Pentagon

All that said, having a retired general run the Pentagon is not a natural fit. There is, of course, the precedent of George C. Marshall, but he was not a combat general, despite having served in France in World War I. Marshall was a great staff officer who basically ran World War II for the U.S. government. (Like Mattis, Marshall was also a straight shooter. Twice he sharply disagreed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in White House meetings. Once he did this when he was a mere brigadier. FDR, recognizing the need to hear dissent, responded by promoting Marshall.)

But, if you’re going to put a general in there, Mattis is a good choice. He is a rarity in that he is a genuine strategic thinker, pushing himself and others to stretch their minds. This tendency is not always welcomed.

Having Mattis run the Defense Department would put the Marines in their most powerful position ever — they’d have the secretary of defense, the Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, and the commandant. If I were the Army I’d hunker down and plan for the future for a few years.

The relationship between SecDef and chairman of the Joint Chiefs would be especially interesting. Joseph Dunford, the CJCS, served under Mattis in Iraq in 2005.

Mattis likely would provide a firewall between Dunford and the Trump White House, suspicious of generals promoted by Barack Obama. As I’ve said before, even in retirement, Mattis having worn four stars will outrank Lieutenant General Flynn’s retired three stars. Mattis also is far smarter, and better educated, than Flynn. That will help contain Flynn.

A quiet but significant result of Mattis being picked could be that career Pentagon officials who otherwise might decline to serve in a Trump administration instead might be encouraged to stay on by the presence of Mattis, who is extremely popular among the rank and file. His Chuck Norris-like reputation is likely be worn down by the realities of the job. But Mattis admires the way Robert Gates operated as defense secretary, and that is a good model to have.

Obama’s rocky military relations come home to roost

A final thought: Pentagon civilians who were part of the Obama administration, such as Rosa Brooks, long have warned that Obama’s White House handled the Pentagon badly. I especially thought that the termination of Mattis’ time at Centcom was handled badly — basically, he was travelling when he was told: Hey, they just announced your successor. But I didn’t think we would see the chickens come home to roost so directly. When they terminated Mattis, I wrote of the Obama 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.” Syria? That isn’t something you solve with Bidenesque schmoozing.

Who would have thought that the best thing for one’s career was to be pushed out by the White House? That’s effectively true of David Petraeus as well. Now he reportedly is being considered for secretary of state. If he is tapped, that will mean that one of Trump’s first act is to give high positions to three generals pushed out by Obama’s White House.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images

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 Twitter: @tomricks1