On December 6, Defense Secretary Panetta nominated General Lloyd Austin to lead the Central Command that is responsible for operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This cuts short by several months the tenure of the current commander, General Jim Mattis, at CentCom headquarters in Tampa. The administration’s motivation was obvious: The social ties between Jill Kelley and the command, sparking the resignation of David Petraeus and the ongoing investigation of e-mails sent by General John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan. Mattis apparently had nothing to do with any of that, but the administration clearly wanted new leadership in Tampa that had no connections to the Kelley family or that social milieu.
This image-burnishing comes at a steep geopolitical cost. Austin may not be confirmed by the Senate until March, and after that he will need months to get up to speed on the situation. In the meantime, despite the sudden announcement that he is leaving, Mattis will be managing military planning and operations related to Syria, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East. A bachelor who has traveled incessantly across the Middle East since his appointment in July of 2010, Mattis has built up a range and depth of contacts, along with a reputation as a leader you don’t want to face in battle. His ferocity on the attack has been widely chronicled. With the radio call sign of “Chaos” and the nickname “Mad Dog,” Mattis commanded Marine infantry in Afghanistan and Iraq and is the only four-star to have engaged in firefights at close range. The troops love him; he’s a wolverine when you turn him loose to fight.
It would have been prudent to keep Mattis in command until the normal rotation next summer, particularly if the administration really fears an Israeli strike against Iran during this spring. His reputation and command style have inserted serious unease in the minds of Iranian and other foes of America. Mattis does not know how to play pattycake.