The nomination of the retired Gen. Jim Mattis to be secretary of defense is not without controversy. The reasons are multifarious, ranging from his fairly recent retirement from the Marine Corps (which would necessitate a Congressional waiver of the requirement that any military officer must wait seven years to become secretary of defense) to his disparaging comments over Israel’s settlement activities. But the arguments for selecting him are far stronger. ITrump has made a great Cabinet choice—his best yet.
I first met Mattis in the summer of 2003. He was then in command of the 1st Marine Division after its rapid march up from Kuwait to Iraq. Our meeting was on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces where he had established his headquarters. Here is how I summed up my initial impressions of him in The Weekly Standard:
Relatively short and trim, with a silver crew cut and owlish spectacles, Mattis doesn’t look particularly imposing. But when he opens his mouth it becomes apparent that he’s cut from the George S. Patton mold. Funny, blunt, erudite, inspiring, and profane, he takes no guff and tolerates no inefficiency. At nightly briefings with his staff, he dissected PowerPoint presentations with laser-like questions that got to the heart of every problem. The issues he dealt with were more appropriate to an imperial proconsul than to a general: how to combat Islamic extremists, win over ordinary people, distribute fuel, enforce law and order, and a thousand other matters. Mattis was not the least bit fazed by the challenge.
In the succeeding 13 years, he advanced to become the four-star commander of the now-defunct Joint Forces Command and the Central Command. He was forced to retire early from the latter position in 2014 because the Obama administration didn’t appreciate his preoccupation with the Iranian threat—a controversy I described in a COMMENTARY article entitled “How America Lost Its Four Great Generals.”
Mattis has become known for his salty sayings, some of which have become legendary: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f—k with me, I’ll kill you all.” “The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”
Taken out of context, those quotes may make him sound like a “mad-dog” militarist (and indeed one of his Marine Corps nicknames is “Mad Dog”). But Mattis has also said that “the most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” And: “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” Those quotes hint at the fact that he is more than a just an inspiring battlefield leader—although he is that. He is also an uncommonly thoughtful military strategist and a well-read student of military history who understands the limitations as well as the uses of force.
Beyond all of that, Mattis is simply a good man who always put his Marines first. When I first met him, he was sleeping on a cot in a tent behind his command post in Iraq, even though there were much nicer quarters available. He always put his own comforts last. A lifelong bachelor, he became legendary in the Corps for taking over Christmas guard duty from junior officers so they could enjoy the holiday with their families. That’s not something that general officers normally do, to put it mildly. And he has also spent months traveling around the United States meeting with the families of his fallen Marines.
It was Mattis’s devotion to his troopers that inspired a similar devotion to him. He is one of the best-regarded generals in the modern history of the Marine Corps. No doubt, as secretary of defense, he would show similar regard for all of the forces under his command.
The fact that Mattis would require a congressional waiver to serve as secretary of defense would not be a problem; he is so well-liked on Capitol Hill that such legislation will breeze through. (John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a particularly strong advocate of the Mattis appointment.) Given that Mattis has always been a critical thinker who is keenly aware of the limitations of existing Pentagon policies, he would not be a yes-man for any branch of the military, not even his own Marine Corps. In fact, Pentagon bureaucrats should be afraid of Mattis precisely because he has such a deep knowledge of the military and all of its faults, as well as it strengths.
Mattis has also been criticized by the strategic analyst Erin Simpson for being the wrong choice because he is above all an operational commander who hates paperwork. “Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling—these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for,” Simpson writes. “Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on war fighting.”
In truth, as a four-star combatant commander, Mattis had plenty of experience with paperwork and bureaucracy. The fact that he has a “single-minded focus on war fighting” will actually be a big advantage because he will press the military bureaucracy to win the wars of the moment instead of endlessly preparing for conflicts that may never arrive (always the bureaucracy’s default position).
The most serious criticism of Mattis concerns infelicitous comments he made about Israel at a security conference shortly after stepping down as CentCom commander 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,” he said. He also complained that Israel’s settlements supposedly threaten peace with the Palestinians: “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.”
These remarks go over the line—in particular, his suggestion that Israel could be guilty of apartheid, given that there are 1.6 million Arab citizens of Israel who enjoy more rights than Arabs do in any Arab state. Israel has already shown its willingness to disband settlements (e.g., in the Gaza Strip) if it thought that doing so would help the cause. The real stumbling block has been the unwillingness or inability of Palestinian leaders to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
But it would be a big mistake to assume based on these one-time comments that Mattis is somehow hostile to Israel. The conservative Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) reported that its “experiences with General Mattis have been very positive, including many private discussions in the last few years on the Middle East.” JINSA went on to note: “General Mattis has notably and indisputably distinguished himself in advocating for a more robust U.S. military posture to counter, contain and deter Iran, even at the peril of his military career… General Mattis’ 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.”
I’ve known Mattis for 13 years and have never heard him say a disparaging word about Israel. To the contrary, he has spoken of his close relationships with, and admiration for, senior Israeli military officers. I am confident that Israel has nothing to fear from Mattis and that the security of Israel and America’s other allies in the Middle East will be enhanced by the tough-on-Iran approach that he advocates. How his outlook will mesh with President-elect Trump’s desire to cooperate with Russia in supporting Bashar Assad—an Iranian client—remains more of an open question.
As secretary of defense, Mattis will bring an intellectual rigor, an understanding of military affairs, a sympathy for the grunts who fight our wars, and a strong ethical grounding that will serve the new administration well.
Indeed Mattis has already made a positive impact by convincing Trump, during their job interview, to take another look at the issue of torture. He told Trump: “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” After spending the last year advocating torture “worse than waterboarding,” Trump professed himself “surprised” and “impressed” by that answer.
Let’s hope that President Trump will continue to listen carefully to the advice he will receive from his defense secretary. Jim Mattis has a lot of wisdom to impart.
A Wise Choice for Defense Secretary
Must-Reads from Magazine
Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.