Report

The Incredible Shrinking Defense Secretary

James Mattis accepts tactical retreats to retain influence with Donald Trump. But the losses are piling up.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a press conference at the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations in Stanford, California, on July 24.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a press conference at the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations in Stanford, California, on July 24. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Pentagon’s decision earlier this month to create a new branch of the U.S. military that would oversee matters related to war in space marked one of the most significant structural changes to the Defense Department in decades.

Yet when it came time to announce the formation of Space Force at the Pentagon’s main auditorium on Aug. 9, the man who runs the Defense Department, Secretary James Mattis, let Vice President Mike Pence do the talking.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose colleagues regularly refer to him as “larger than life” (though he’s only about 5 feet, 9 inches tall), is not exactly given to ceding ground—certainly not in his own building.

But the defense secretary had argued against the formation of a military branch dedicated to space and lost the battle to a president hungry for legacy projects.

For much of his term as defense secretary, Mattis has been seen as one of the most influential voices in President Donald Trump’s orbit, the man who would show deference in public but quietly work to curb the president’s most reckless impulses.

But lately, he’s been losing more arguments than he’s winning—on matters far more critical than the Space Force. As Trump grows more confident on issues of national security and surrounds himself with hard-liners such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, Mattis’s ability to influence the president on policies relating to Iran and North Korea is increasingly in doubt, according to analysts and former officials.

“[Mattis] was told repeatedly to get working on this Space Force and didn’t do it, and finally [Trump] basically says, ‘This is what you are going to do,’ and he sends in his vice president,” said one former senior defense official who left the department in the past year but remains familiar with the Pentagon’s internal discussions.

“That is not something that would’ve happened in month one or six of this administration,” the former official said.

Mattis had explicitly told lawmakers in 2017 that he did not wish to add a separate service “that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” But days after Pence’s announcement, the secretary reversed himself, saying he was now satisfied that it was the right approach.

“I was not against setting up a Space Force,” he told reporters while flying to Brazil in early August. “What I was against was rushing to do that before we could define the problem.”

Mattis’s early months at the Defense Department were marked by a string of successes. He secured a significant budget increase for the Pentagon and got Trump to agree to raise the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan despite the president’s initial inclination to withdraw from the conflict altogether. Mattis also reportedly resisted Trump’s impulse to call a strike on North Korea.

Trump leaned on Mattis to understand the key defense and national security issues his administration was facing. The defense secretary did not win every fight—Mattis opposed Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But he clearly had Trump’s respect.

“The entire first year of Mattis’s tenure, he was indisputably the most powerful member of the Cabinet and knew it, and everybody else knew it,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Mattis, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, utilized that clout to help sustain the trust of U.S. allies, particularly in the Middle East, said Barbara Leaf, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until this March. As the conflict between Qatar and a coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia boiled over last year, Mattis kept the situation from unraveling, Leaf said.

“His words carry great weight,” Leaf said.

But Mattis lost two key allies earlier this year with the departure from the administration of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The men who replaced them—Bolton and Mike Pompeo, respectively—have come to hold more sway with the president than their predecessors.

“You clearly have the impression that he doesn’t have the same relationship [with Trump] that he had before, and that his influence has been impacted as a result,” said former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Dana White, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, said any suggestions that her boss is less influential today were simply untrue.

“Secretary Mattis is focused on defending our nation and securing the resources the military needs before they need it. He advises the President on a wide variety of national security matters. Any suggestions to the contrary are misinformed,” White said.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal might be the most glaring instance of the two men being out of step. But there are other examples as well. The Pentagon was reportedly caught off guard by the president’s decision to cancel military exercises with South Korea after his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June (although White said Mattis was consulted ahead of time).

Meanwhile, the administration recently announced it is ending funding for Syria stabilization projects as it moves to extricate the U.S. from the conflict. By contrast, Mattis has stressed the importance of the United States continuing to work in Syria after the Islamic State is defeated.

That’s not to say Mattis has been marginalized or is on the verge of losing his job. It’s not uncommon for U.S. presidents to assert more foreign-policy independence during their second year in office and lean less on advisors for guidance. But Trump is more brash and volatile than most of his predecessors, and there is arguably more at stake.

Many of his critics, including people within the Republican Party, had viewed Mattis as a counterpoint to Trump. Some of them are now disappointed by what they view as the defense secretary’s retreat on key issues, according to Eaglen.

“Now it’s like Mattis is too clever by half … he always seems to disappear whenever Trump says something crazy,” Eaglen said. “It’s just crazy how he exits the scene whenever it’s convenient for him.”

That tendency to stay away from the spotlight—and the media—could well be the reason Mattis still has job: Trump can be vindictive when he perceives underlings as stealing the attention.

“I think Jim is trying to play it smart,” Panetta said. “It’s pretty obvious that if he were to be out there and talking in the press and trying to play up his position that it would undermine any possible influence that he could have.”

But that same policy has led to an increasingly fraught relationship with the press. The defense secretary has refrained from briefing reporters on camera at the Pentagon since April, and White has not done so since May. Veteran Pentagon reporters say that it is more and more difficult to gain access to information, and they complain of retaliation from spokespeople for critical coverage.

Arguably, Mattis is still able to temper some of Trump’s behavior. When the president roiled the NATO summit in Brussels in July, leaders viewed Mattis as the “reassuring voice” in the administration, according to one former senior military commander. Behind closed doors, NATO leaders agreed to take big steps on counterterrorism, new troop commitments, reforming command structures, and boosting defense spending.

“Day to day, Mattis and Pompeo have been allowed to do a lot of the blocking and tackling work that’s essential to keeping alliances on track,” said Michele Flournoy, who was Mattis’s first choice for deputy defense secretary but who, facing pushback from the Trump White House, ultimately turned him down.

But the real test will come when Trump makes decisions on the biggest issues facing his administration, including relations with Russia, the winding down of the conflict in Syria, and the prospect of war with Iran.

“The president is going to continue to tweet his position on those issues,” Panetta said.

“I think where the important line will be is whether or not Jim Mattis, and for that matter the entire national security team, can prevent him from implementing some of those tweets in politics.”

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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