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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Mattis, James

Secretary of Defense
Hoover Institution: Visiting Fellow
U.S. Marine Corps: Retired General

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James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a retired U.S Marine Corps general, is Secretary of Defense in the Donald Trump administration. He served as commander of U.S. Central Command during 2010-2013 before being removed by the Obama administration reportedly because of differences over Iran policy.[1] Mattis has served on the board of directors of military contractor General Dynamics and been a visiting scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution.

Mattis is known for his penchant for making rash comments, like saying “It’s fun to shoot some people,” and having an audacious leadership style. According to a 2016 New Yorker profile: “In battle, Mattis’s boldness had earned him the nickname ‘Mad Dog,’ and when he commanded the Marines’ 1st Division during the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, his radio call sign was ‘Chaos.’”

When Trump announced his decision to nominate Mattis in December 2016 he said that the retired general was “the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton.” Despite having policy differences with Trump—including over the use of torture, which Mattis seems to think is ineffective—Mattis reportedly appealed to the in-coming administration because of “his insistence that Iran is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, as well as his acerbic criticism of the Obama administration.”[2]

A key Mattis congressional supporter has been Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who pressed Trump to nominate either Mattis or retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a colleague of several neoconservative activists.[3] Other notable Mattis boosters have included neoconservative figures like William Kristol, who along with a host of GOP donors and strategists unsucceffully tried to persuade Mattis to run for president as an independent if Trump won the nomination.[4]

According to one observer, Mattis is “less of a neocon than some of these other people, but he definitely believes in the iron fist of U.S. militarism. He definitely would be one of the more sophisticated military figures that Trump is speaking to.”[5] The New Yorker profile noted that Mattis seemed to be “intently focused on stability, wary of warfare that sought to promote democracy or idealism, sentimental about the independence of the Baltic states, firmly committed to NATO, and unsentimental about Russia.”[6]

Other commentators have focused attention on Mattis’ experience working at General Dynamics, one of the largest Pentagon contractors. “For the military-industrial-congressional complex it doesn’t get much better than this,” wrote a commentator in the foreign policy blog Lobelog. According to the International Business Times, Mattis was selected as an “independent director” of General Dynamics in 2013, had been paid $594,369 as of 2016, and had “amassed more than $900,000 worth of company stock.” It reported that “while on the General Dynamics board, Mattis testified before Congress, where he called caps on defense spending—known as the sequestration—a national security threat. ‘No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving,’ he said during the 2015 hearing.”

On Iran

Since taking over as Defense Secretary, Mattis has pressed an aggressive stance on Iran. In April 2017, Mattis was one of several administration figures who complained about the country’s “destabilizing” influence. Pointing to Tehran’s role in Yemen’s conflict, Mattis said: “We will have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah, but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it.” The comments were made at the same time that Trump announced a review of the Iran nuclear deal and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson complained about “alarming ongoing provocations” by Iran, which he said has “the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and to take the world along with it.”

Mattis has been an outspoken Iran hawk for many years. He has argued that the country has declared war on the United States and reportedly thinks “that Iran’s support for Shia militias in Iraq meant that Tehran was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops.”[7] In a little-noticed speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April 2016, Mattis said that Iran was the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.”[8]

On the other hand, although he is highly critical of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—which limits the country’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief—Mattis has opposed backing out of the agreement, something numerous other Trump cabinet appointees have called for, including Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo. At the CSIS event he said, “I want to make clear there’s no going back. Absent a clear and present violation [by Iran], I don’t think we can take advantage of some new president—Republican or Democrat—and say, ‘well, we’re not going to live up to our word in this agreement.’ I believe we’d be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.”[9]

Mattis reaffirmed his belief that the U.S. must adhere to the Iran agreement during his nomination hearings in January 2017, arguing that it is critical to regional security.

Mattis has also puzzlingly suggested that Iran may somehow be collaborating with ISIS, stating at CSIS: “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief [in the region]. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates. I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”

Concludes an analyst for Lobelog: “Although Mattis likely wouldn’t oppose a confrontation with Iran, he hasn’t openly called for one, either, and even hinted at an openness to engaging with ‘Iranian generals’ when he was at CENTCOM. In short, though he’s an ‘Iran hawk,’ Mattis doesn’t seem to be particularly out of the mainstream in the U.S. foreign policy community, at least not when compared to people like Flynn and Pompeo.”

Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that during his 2011 conversations with Mattis “he never heard him itching for another Middle Eastern war or talking up the benefits of bombing Iran preemptively.” He added: “It is common to observe, based on congressional testimony and other public comments he has made, that Mattis has taken a hard line toward Iran, particularly the activities of the Revolutionary Guards and other allied or expeditionary Iranian militant units in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. During our discussions, Mattis made a few comments along those lines. But mainly he seemed focused on deepening America’s long-standing military and political alliances with Sunni Arab states—Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. During his time at Central Command, he spent many hours talking to counterparts in those countries, which tend to view Shia revolutionary Iran as a serious threat. The smaller, militarily weaker Sunni states closest to Iran—such as the U.A.E.—were and remain acutely anxious that the United States might sell out their security in some Nixon-to-China grand bargain with Tehran.”

On the other hand, some writers have expressed concern about Matthis’ take on Iran. “Mattis has a thing about Iran that appears to let passion shove the erudition aside whenever Iran is involved. Mark Perry may be right that the passion is a Marine Corps thing and stems from the truck bombing, by Iran’s client Lebanese Hezbollah, of the barracks in Beirut in 1983 in which 220 Marines and 21 other Americans died. Perry quotes another senior Marine officer as saying about Mattis, ‘It’s in his blood. It’s almost like he wants to get even with them.’”

On Iraq

Although he did not speak out publicly against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Mattis said at a 2015 conference that “we will probably look back on the invasion of Iraq as a mistake—as a strategic mistake.”[10]

At the time of the invasion, he said: “I think people were pretty much aware that the U.S. military didn’t think it was a very wise idea. But we give a cheery ‘Aye aye, sir.’ Because when you elect someone commander in chief—we give our advice. We generally give it in private.”[11] Notably, Mattis did not heed this same protocol with respect to the Obama administration and Iran, “speaking openly or critically about the Iran deal and questioning some of the Obama administration’s motives,” which ultimately led to his dismissal from Central Command.[12]

In 2006, Mattis coauthored with Gen. David Petraeus a U.S. Army field manual on counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, which had an important impact on military strategy in Iraq and has been lauded by neoconservatives and “liberal hawks.” “In a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that [COIN] doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military,” said John Nagl, a former Army officer who contributed to the COIN manual before heading the Center for a New American Security.[13]

Wrote Daniel Luban in a 2009 analysis for Right Web: “Although advocates portray COIN as a purely pragmatic and non-ideological response to the security challenges of the twenty-first century, critics charge that its focus on ‘small wars’ and nation-building simply assumes that the main goal of the U.S. military should be subduing local populations of far-flung but strategically important countries. In that respect, they argue, COIN can serve as a smokescreen for maintaining a U.S. imperial posture.”[14]

“Great powers wage ‘small wars’ not to defend themselves but to assert control over foreign populations,” wrote Andrew Bacevich in his 2008 book The Limits of Power. “Historically, that is, ‘small wars’ are imperial wars. … [T]o assume that wars like Iraq define the military’s future evades a larger question. Given what the pursuit of American imperial ambitions in the Greater Middle East has actually produced … why would the United States persist in such a strategy? Instead of changing the military, why not change the policy?” [15]

On Israel

Despite the backing of some leading neoconservatives, Mattis has been critical of Israel and U.S. relations with the country. He has argued that Israeli settlement policy eventually leads to apartheid: “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 you say the Arabs don’t get to vote—apartheid.”[16]

As for the negative impact of one-sided U.S. support for the country, he said in 2013: “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates 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.”[17]

Observers point out that these views are at odds with those expressed by Trump, even if real estate mogul has expressed doubts about Israel’s commitment to seeking peace with the Palestinians.[18] According to one report, the rightwing Zionist Organization of Americaissued a statement (that since appears to have been deleted from their own website) saying that Mattis’s 2013 remarks ‘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’ and urging ‘that Mattis not be appointed’ as Defense Secretary.”[19]

On Russia

Mattis appears to differ sharply with Trump over Russia, although the two have reportedly discussed ways to improve up relations. While Trump is a vocal admirer of Vladimir Putin, Mattis has argued that Russia’s aggressive militarism is “much more severe, more serious” than both Brussels and Washington seem to think.[20]

According to a report of a 2015 event at the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, Mattis warned that the “nationalist emotions that Russian President Vladimir Putin has stirred up will make it ‘very, very hard [for him or his successors] to pull back from some of the statements he has made’ about the West. At the same time, Putin faces problems of his own with jihadists inside Russia’s borders that threaten domestic stability.

But Putin also demonstrated Russia’s nuclear capability with long-range bomber flights near NATO countries. His intent is ‘to break NATO apart.’”

 

[1] Vox, “Meet Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s Iran hawk choice for secretary of defense,” December 1, 2016, http://www.vox.com/world/2016/12/1/13718282/pentagon-jim-mad-dog-mattis-trump-iran-hawk-russia-secretary-of-defense-general

[2] New York Times, “James Mattis, Outspoken Retired Marine, Is Trump’s Choice as Defense Secretary,” December 1, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/us/politics/james-mattis-secrtary-of-defense-trump.html

[3] New York Times, “James Mattis, Outspoken Retired Marine, Is Trump’s Choice as Defense Secretary,” December 1, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/us/politics/james-mattis-secrtary-of-defense-trump.html

[4] Daily Beast, “The Secret Movement to Draft General James Mattis for President,” April 8, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/08/the-secret-movement-to-draft-general-james-mattis-for-president.html

[5] Democracy Now, “Neocons, War Criminals & White Nationalists: Jeremy Scahill on Trump’s Incoming Advisers & Cabinet,” November 2016, https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/21/neocons_war_criminals_white_nationalists_jeremy

[6] Steve Coll, “TRAVELLING WITH JAMES MATTIS, DONALD TRUMP’S PICK FOR SECRETARY OF DEFENSE,” New Yorker, December 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/travelling-with-james-mattis-donald-trumps-pick-for-secretary-of-defense.

[7] Vox, “Meet Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s Iran hawk choice for secretary of defense,” December 1, 2016, http://www.vox.com/world/2016/12/1/13718282/pentagon-jim-mad-dog-mattis-trump-iran-hawk-russia-secretary-of-defense-general

[8] Jim Lobe, “Mattis on Iran: Belligerent, but Don’t Tear Up Nuclear Deal,” Lobelog, November 25, 2016, http://lobelog.com/mattis-on-iran-belligerent-but-dont-tear-up-nuclear-deal/

[9] Jim Lobe, “Mattis on Iran: Belligerent, but Don’t Tear Up Nuclear Deal,” Lobelog, November 25, 2016, http://lobelog.com/mattis-on-iran-belligerent-but-dont-tear-up-nuclear-deal/

[10] Mattathias Schwartz, “Iraq Was Probably A “Mistake,” Said Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s Defense Pick, The Intercept, December 5, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/12/05/iraq-was-a-mistake-said-gen-james-mattis-trumps-defense-pick/

[11] Mattathias Schwartz, “Iraq Was Probably A “Mistake,” Said Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s Defense Pick, The Intercept, December 5, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/12/05/iraq-was-a-mistake-said-gen-james-mattis-trumps-defense-pick/

[12] Democracy Now, “Neocons, War Criminals & White Nationalists: Jeremy Scahill on Trump’s Incoming Advisers & Cabinet,” November 2016, https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/21/neocons_war_criminals_white_nationalists_jeremy

[13] Daniel Luban, “Neocons and Liberal Hawks Converge on Counterinsurgency,” Right Web, April 15, 2009, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/neocons_and_liberal_hawks_converge_on_counterinsurgency/

[14] Daniel Luban, “Neocons and Liberal Hawks Converge on Counterinsurgency,” Right Web, April 15, 2009, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/neocons_and_liberal_hawks_converge_on_counterinsurgency/

[15] Quoted in Daniel Luban, “Neocons and Liberal Hawks Converge on Counterinsurgency,” Right Web, April 15, 2009, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/neocons_and_liberal_hawks_converge_on_counterinsurgency/

[16] Haaretz, “James Mattis, Trump’s Reported Pick for Defense Post, Sees Israel Turning Into Apartheid State,” December 1, 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.754253.

[17] Haaretz, “James Mattis, Trump’s Reported Pick for Defense Post, Sees Israel Turning Into Apartheid State,” December 1, 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.754253.

[18] Paul Pillar, “What Trump Uncovers,” LobeLog, December 6, 2015, https://lobelog.com/what-trump-uncovers/.

[19] Derek Davison, “Mad Dog” Mattis: Trump’s Least Belligerent Foreign Policy Advisor? Lobelog, December 2, 2016, http://lobelog.com/mad-dog-mattis-trumps-least-belligerent-foreign-policy-advisor/

[20] Derek Davison, “Mad Dog” Mattis: Trump’s Least Belligerent Foreign Policy Advisor? Lobelog, December 2, 2016, http://lobelog.com/mad-dog-mattis-trumps-least-belligerent-foreign-policy-advisor/

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Mattis, James Résumé

Affiliations

  • Hoover Institution: Visiting Fellow

Government

  • Secretary of Defense (2017- )
  • U.S: Central Command: Director (2010 – 2013)
  • U.S. Marine Corps: Retired General

Business

  • General Dynamics: Independent Director

Education

  • Central Washington University

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