Commentary Magazine


Topic: James Mattis

Why Mattis Will Be Missed

The Obama administration may regret pushing General James Mattis, the brilliant and blunt-talking Marine who is head of Central Command, into retirement for a variety of reasons—not the least of them being that, with his impending retirement looming, he has felt free to voice undiplomatic truths.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he was asked whether sanctions and diplomacy were preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. His blunt answer: “No, sir” He followed up by explaining: “That should not be in any way construed as we should not try to negotiate. I still support the direction we’re taking. I’m just — I’m paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.” Needless to say his “dim view” is a lot closer to reality than the daydreams of political staffers in the White House who imagine that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough with the mullahs is likely.

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The Obama administration may regret pushing General James Mattis, the brilliant and blunt-talking Marine who is head of Central Command, into retirement for a variety of reasons—not the least of them being that, with his impending retirement looming, he has felt free to voice undiplomatic truths.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he was asked whether sanctions and diplomacy were preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. His blunt answer: “No, sir” He followed up by explaining: “That should not be in any way construed as we should not try to negotiate. I still support the direction we’re taking. I’m just — I’m paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.” Needless to say his “dim view” is a lot closer to reality than the daydreams of political staffers in the White House who imagine that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough with the mullahs is likely.

When he was asked about how many troops the U.S. should leave behind in Afghanistan after 2014, Mattis replied with equal frankness that his recommendation has been to keep 13,600 U.S. troops on the assumption that NATO would provide half as many, for a total international force of 20,000. That is roughly half the figure that the White House has been floating as a possibility. But, again, Mattis’s assessment is a lot closer to the mark than the politically driven happy-talk from the White House.

No doubt Mattis caused some consternation in the White House by telling the truth about Iran and Afghanistan—the very definition of a “Washington gaffe”—but it is precisely because of his willingness to speak truth to power that Mattis will be so dearly missed. He is one of the few senior governmental appointees left, after the departure of Clinton, Gates, Panetta, and Petraeus, who can inject some reality into a foreign policy that increasingly seems to be dominated by a handful of like-minded presidential cronies.

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Obama’s Iran Approach Already Failed

In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

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In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden articulated what might have been the most bellicose expression of administration sentiment toward Iran. He told the annual AIPAC conference that President Obama’s reliance on diplomacy and sanctions was justified, because it would allow the United States to say it had done everything to avoid war if the moment came when force must be used to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. But that stand was undermined by what transpired last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan when the P5+1 group met for the latest round of talks with the Iranians.

At those talks, the Western powers made concessions to the Iranians, saying they would allow them to keep their nuclear plant at Fordow open and that they could continue to refine uranium. Just as bad, they made it clear that if Iran would agree to suspend some of its nuclear activities, some of the sanctions that had been put into place so slowly and with such difficulty would be lifted.

Though the Iranians were clearly pleased by this retreat, they didn’t agree to the terms since they quite understandably believe they can do even better by continuing to stonewall the West. It must be understood that such a stand is an invitation for the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon since the terms of such an accord would give them plenty of latitude to evade the restrictions–much as the North Koreans have done.

The point is not just that, as General Mattis has rightly noted, diplomacy and sanctions have failed up until this point, but that by signing on to the strategy being employed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—the leader of the P5+1 group—the administration is doubling down on that failure and locking itself into a process that may ensure that it will be impossible to stop the Iranians.

It is to be hoped that Biden’s bluster represents the genuine sentiments of the president and that it shows he is thinking clearly about the necessity to act before it is too late. But the continued support for more diplomacy and the insistence that sanctions will eventually do the trick may betray a very different mindset.

President Obama is clearly a person who has little patience for opposing views, so it is no surprise that General Mattis will soon leave office. In his absence, it isn’t clear who will continue to tell the president truths that he doesn’t want to hear or whether the tough talk about Iran will continue to be given the lie by more diplomatic surrenders.

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Obama Ignoring CENTCOM on Iran

When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

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When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

The same fundamental clash, where the president’s electoral considerations are in tension with his underlying instincts and the result is an incoherent policy, are playing out on Iran. Again, one is tempted to suspect symptomatically, the advice and judgments of military commanders in the field are getting ignored.

Monday the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake exposed strong disagreements between Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, and various figures in the administration. Last January Mattis wanted to respond to Iranian naval provocations by moving a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf. He was rebuffed. The incident seems to be a microcosm of broader differences between Mattis and the Obama White House on Iran:

The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran… Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s…

The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate. While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record.

That bit about developing nuclear weapons undermines the administration’s coordinated media campaign and leakfest on Iran, which is designed to preemptively scapegoat Israel for overreacting and getting Americans killed. It appears to be one of many places where the generals in the field disagree with the president. Given the ineptitude with which this White House has handled Iraq and Afghanistan, the dynamic is far from encouraging.

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