One of President-elect Donald Trump’s most popular decisions has been selecting retired Marine Corps General James Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense. Ordinarily, he would not be considered suitable for that cabinet post out of respect for the principle of maintaining civilian control over the U.S. military. But the high regard for General Mattis within the Pentagon and on both sides of the aisle in Congress qualifies him as one of the rare exceptions to that rule. As a result, it is expected that Congress will pass the waiver Mattis will need because he does not satisfy the legally required seven year waiting period for any military man to become secretary of defense after retiring from active duty.
The last time that a recently retired general was permitted to serve as defense secretary was in 1950, when President Harry Truman appointed General George Marshall, who had served with great distinction as the Army Chief of Staff throughout World War II. Marshall resigned as chief of staff shortly after the war ended in 1945, but remained in the service of his country. As Truman’s Secretary of State from 1947-1949, he created and implemented the highly successful plan for the economic recovery of post-war Europe which bears his name and for which he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.
Truman nominated Marshall in 1950, just after North Korea caught the U.S. unawares by invading South Korea. As one of the country’s leading diplomats, no objections were raised to entrusting Marshall with control over the U.S. military.
Mattis’s many admirers place him on the same high level as General Marshall as a military leader and a deep strategic thinker. Mattis earned his nickname as “Mad Dog” leading the U.S. Marines into battle in Afghanistan in 2001, and in the bloody battle for Fallujah in Iraq in 2003. He is also known as the “Warrior Monk” for his encyclopedic knowledge of military history gleaned from reading his personal library of more than 6,000 books, as well as his keen intellectual analysis.
OBAMA FIRED MATTIS OVER HIS OPPOSITION TO THE IRAN DEAL
Mattis was forced into early retirement in 2013 due to his vehement objections to President Obama’s decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. He annoyed civilian policymakers in the Obama White House by insisting that they consider the secondary consequences of the Iran deal. Mattis asked them what the U.S. would do if Iran continued to export terror and escalate its conventional military involvement with other countries in the region after the nuclear deal was signed. They had no answer, and the Obama administration has, in fact, done nothing in the face of continued Iranian troublemaking.
General Mattis’s final military assignment from 2010-2013 was as the commander of CENTCOM (US Central Command), whose area of responsibility covered most of the Middle East and Central Asia, excluding Israel. In that post, he was keenly aware of the Iranian threat to the region. He was outspoken in arguing that the U.S. must counter contain and deter Iran, knowing that expressing that opinion could and ultimately did shorten his military career.
As the head of Central Command, Mattis oversaw the U.S. military involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Leon Panetta, who was secretary of defense during most of that period, the Obama White House distrusted Mattis because it perceived him to be too eager for a U.S. military confrontation with Iran.
Mattis retired from the U.S. Marine Corps on May 22, 2013. Since that time, he has served as a member of the board of directors for various corporations, but has spent most of his time as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, a think tank at Stanford University in California.
MATTIS CRITICIZED ISRAEL’S SETTLEMENTS
Most of the concerns expressed about General Mattis’s attitudes towards Israel’s settlement policies and its conflict with the Palestinians date back to remarks he made in July 2013 during a security forum at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Speaking from his recent perspective as the head in CENTCOM, Mattis said that he “paid a military-security price every day” with Arabs in the region “because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
He added that U.S. support for Israel was a barrier for “all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Mattis called Israel’s West Bank settlements “unsustainable,” and the “main reason why prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are starting to ebb. . . [they] are going to make it impossible to maintain the two state solution.” In an effort to explain why he thought that the settlements are counterproductive to Israel’s best interests, Mattis offered the following argument: “If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or [if] you say the Arabs don’t get to vote, [that leads to] apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” he said, referring to the previous white regime in South Africa.
A COMMON CRITICISM
Mattis’s argument at Aspen was quite similar to the one Israeli leftists promoting the two-state solution and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank have been making for years. The same objections have been repeated by White House and State Department officials to all Israeli efforts to build new Jewish housing in the West Bank or east Yerushalayim.
During the Aspen forum, Mattis expressed his strong support for Kerry’s ultimately failed efforts to jump start the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and praised the secretary of state for being “wisely focused like a laser-beam” towards a two-state solution, saying that it was the only way to gain more Arab support for U.S. policies.
Despite strong support for Israel’s security, the same negative opinion of its settlement policy was widely shared in the U.S. military establishment at the time.
In March 2010, Mattis’s predecessor as the commander of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [area] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Friends of Israel bitterly criticized those conclusions, forcing General Petraeus to walk them back. Morton Klein, the President of the Zionist Organization of America, issued a statement shortly after the election asking President-elect Trump not to nominate Mattis as his secretary of defense because his 2013 comments in Aspen “revealed a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the extraordinary value to American security resulting from a strong American-Israeli alliance and a secure Israel.”
WILL MATTIS CHANGE HIS MIND?
Other pro-Israel American groups disagree with Klein’s conclusion. The Republican Jewish Coalition called Trump’s choice of Mattis to run the Pentagon “smart and important.”
The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a group dedicated to strengthening the U.S.-Israel security relationship, said that the attempts to portray Mattis as anti-Israel solely on the basis of his remarks in Aspen are “ill-founded and unfair.”
JINSA released a statement last week which said, “We understand and share many of the objections to his remarks, including that he seemed to blame mostly Israel for the impasse, despite the critical challenges it faces in lacking a stable, moderate Palestinian partner that genuinely seeks a durable peace with the Jewish state. Some American Jews and even Israelis make the same mistake. In any case, he has not repeated those remarks.”
Most pro-Israel advocates believe that Mattis, as defense secretary, will recognize that the security situation facing the U.S. in the Middle East has changed profoundly during the three years since he made those statements, revealing, among other things, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not nearly as important as U.S. policymakers had believed.
Specifically, the realignment of power in the region due to the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of ISIS and the further deterioration of the situation in Syria has reduced the relative importance of finding a resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
MATTIS SEES IRAN AS THE GREATER THREAT
In prepared remarks at a Washington forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April of this year, Mattis reaffirmed his belief that Iran “is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. Despite repeated mentions of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda by others… Nothing I believe is as serious in the long term in enduring ramifications in terms of stability, and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there than Iran.”
He added, “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS. They have a lot to gain from the turmoil in the region that ISIS creates.”
CALLING OBAMA NAIVE
Mattis said he still opposes the nuclear deal with Iran as a serious strategic mistake arising out of President Obama’s naive failure to recognize that the current regime will never be a “modern, responsible,” influence in the region. He also faults Congress for being “pretty much absent” when the nuclear deal was being negotiated. However, Mattis said he believed it was unrealistic for a new president to try to undo it.
“We are going to have to recognize that we have an imperfect arms control agreement,” he said. “What we achieved was a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt. We’re going to have to plan for the worst.”
Mattis said the fundamental goals and actions of Iran’s radical Islamic regime have not improved despite Obama’s best efforts. “The Iranian revolution of the 1970s. . . remains the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East… Their consistent behavior since 1979 through today shows no sign of changing.”
Mattis added that one of the few benefits of the deal is, “[if] nothing else at least we will have better targeting data if it comes to a fight in the future.”
Given the current perception that the U.S. is pulling back from its allies in the region, Mattis foresees a “ghastly” future for the Middle East. “We know that vacuums left in the Middle East seem to be filled by either terrorists or by Iran or their surrogates or Russia … In order to restore deterrence, we have to show capability, capacity and resolve,” he said.
MATTIS CALLED FOR THE U.S. TO “STAND BY OUR FRIENDS”
The JINSA statement also cited Mattis’s stress on “the need to stand by our longstanding regional friends,” including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Mattis has also publicly urged the U.S. to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels who are fighting those whom he sees as Iran’s proxies in Syria, including Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army.
JINSA said that “General Mattis’s outlook on these issues aligns perfectly with Israel’s, which considers an aggressive Iran its greatest strategic threat, and a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat. Israel also seeks a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East.”
JINSA notes that General Mattis has recognized the alignment of U.S. and Israel on these matters, as well as their agreement with the outlook of the friendly Arab states in the region.
With regard to his overall views about the region, JINSA declared that it’s “experiences with General Mattis have been very positive, including many private discussions in the last few years on the Middle East. We recently consulted several notable Israelis and Americans in the civic and military spheres who also have interacted with him and they share our confidence in his support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Were General Mattis to become secretary of defense and work more closely with Israel in that position, an opportunity he lacked at CENTCOM, we believe he will become an even closer friend of the State of Israel,” the JINSA statement concluded.
MATCHING TRUMP’S VIEWS
While President-elect Trump’s statements on his Middle East policies remain incomplete, he clearly shares Mattis’s recognition of the dangers of Iran’s regional ambitions and its nuclear threat, especially when the terms of Obama’s nuclear deal begin to expire within a decade.
Trump would like America’s wealthier friends to begin to pay more of the costs the U.S. incurs to defend them, but he also recognizes the need for the U.S. to stick by them while getting tougher on its adversaries, in sharp contrast to President Obama’s approach to the Middle East.
A new book by former George W. Bush advisor Michael Doran suggests that the recurring U.S. policy problems in the region began during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s, when the U.S. first sought to play the role of “honest broker” in the Israeli-Arab dispute. At that time Israel’s primary enemy was Egypt, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser.
EISENHOWER’S FAILED STRATEGY
Eisenhower had hoped to recruit Nasser and other Arab state leaders as allies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. That is why his administration backed Nasser’s move to evict British troops and nationalize the strategic Suez Canal in July 1956. Three months later, Eisenhower again took Egypt’s side. He forced British, French and Israeli troops to withdraw after they had beaten the Egyptian army and recaptured the canal in the Sinai War. But despite U.S. help, Nasser went over to the Soviet side of the Cold War.
Eisenhower failed to appreciate the extent of the internal divisions and anti-democratic tendencies in the Arab world which stood in the way of an alliance with the U.S. He also could not see that Israel was actually playing a stabilizing role in the region, rather than being the root cause of that instability. That fact did not become obvious until the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which clearly had nothing to do with Israel.
THE KIND OF LEADER THE U.S. NEEDS TODAY
Doran’s conclusion is that the U.S. needs to throw off more than 50 years of discredited Middle East policy assumptions. U.S. leaders must recognize that pressuring Israel cannot resolve the complex ethnic nationalist and religious forces tearing apart the Arab and Muslim world, and be capable of adjusting their outlook in reaction to the new strategic realities in the region.
By all accounts, General Mattis is just such a leader. While his boosters like to compare him to the bold and charismatic General George Patton of World War II fame, his associates view him as a better strategic thinker and far more disciplined than Patton ever was. Democrats and Republicans have publicly suggested that General Mattis has the extensive strategic and foreign policy experience that President-elect Trump lacks. Mattis’s strong influence on Trump’s policies is already apparent. As Secretary of Defense, Mattis would reassure many who have been worried about how Trump would govern in those critical areas.
CAPABLE OF SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
Thomas Ricks, who has been one of Mattis’s colleagues over the past three years at the Hoover Institution, writes, “He is an unusually forthright man, which is one reason his sayings have become so popular among Marines. (One of the more printable is, ‘Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.’) He will tell the president what he thinks, and that is a good thing. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he believes it part of his duty to give his candid views to his superiors.”
Ricks also takes comfort in the knowledge that General Mattis is “extremely well read,” and takes the ancient wisdom of emperors and philosophers into account when making his own decisions.
As far as the danger of putting a military man in charge of the Pentagon, Ricks writes, “General Mattis knows that war is the last resort, not the first one. He also understands that the threat of force works best when it works in conjunction with robust diplomatic efforts.”
Reporters covering the Pentagon say that word of Mattis’s selection generated a big boost in morale. Reporters covering Capitol Hill expect little or no trouble in securing the congressional waiver Mattis needs to serve as defense secretary. They predict broad bipartisan support for his Senate confirmation.
As far as friends of Israel are concerned, General Mattis’s clear-eyed recognition of the seriousness of the threat from Iran should serve as a source of encouragement far outweighing any concerns about an isolated statement he made three years ago when the strategic view of the Middle East was far different than it is today.