“I don’t have worry and stress. I cause worry and stress.”
— James Mattis, speaking at the Aspen Institute, July 20, 2013
Jim Mattis is comfortable with hard missions. His service record proves it. He fought honorably in the First Gulf War and Afghanistan, led the First Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and held multiple command positions in Iraq after the invasion. Later, he served as a senior NATO commander, and as commanding officer of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Along the way, he earned a reputation for aggressive operations and cultural sensitivity.
Yet dive into the details and you’ll find that Mattis’s career proves something else: He’s the incarnation of the First Marine Division motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”
U.S. enemies fear Mattis for his strategic brilliance. Reveling in introspection, Mattis recognizes the geographic, social, and psychological nature of the battlefield. A 2014 U.S. Command and General Staff College paper by Major Michael Valenti gives a good example. Valenti recounts how Mattis mitigated problems with supply lines and terrain before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He “studied National Geographic magazines to gain an appreciation for what would happen if the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flooded as it did in 1955.” He “mandated that every major and above in the division read Russell Braddon’s The Siege,” which tells the story of the British Expeditionary Force’s time in then-Mesopatamia during World War I, because it was”one of the few books written about fighting in Iraq.’”
So Mattis is at once a scholar and a warrior. But he is equally respected for his calculated aggression. After four U.S. contractors were killed in Fallujah in March 2004, the Bush administration ordered the Marines to take the city. Skeptical that a full-out assault was necessary, the Marines nonetheless followed orders. But once near victory, they were forced to pull out when public pressure grew in Europe and Iraq. This required a second, bloody retaking of Fallujah in November. Mattis however, was unperturbed. In meetings and on the battlefield, he spoke the language of the Anbari tribes, and he delivered annihilation upon al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Key American adversaries — China, Russia, and Iran — are well aware of this record and what it says about Mattis. It must be stressing them out.
Iran has particular reason for concern. Commanding CENTCOM, Mattis pushed for tough realism in constraining the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary expansionism. He recognizes that Iran’s leaders are rational actors, but he also knows that their revolutionary impulses must be checked. For this, he earned the ire of President Obama, who was so intent on kowtowing to the Iranian regime. But now he is set to take over the Pentagon, and Khamenei and the Qassem-crew have much to fear.
First, Mattis is likely to push Trump to focus on fixing the Iran nuclear deal. This will likely entail reducing Iranian cheating on inspections protocols and Iranian ballistic-missile research. If Trump and Mattis work with U.S. allies (notably the French) who are concerned about President Obama’s failure to enforce the deal, Iran could face rougher waters next year. Mattis has suggested blockading the country if the regime tries to play hard ball. It’s a good idea.
Second, a Mattis Pentagon will likely take tougher action against Iranian aggression in the Middle East. As I’ve noted, President Obama has largely ignored Iranian malevolence in states such as Lebanon and Iraq. That needs to be remedied, and quickly.
Third, Mattis will deter Iranian terrorism against America. That imperative is real. In 2011, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — as Mattis himself explains — tried to murder the then-Saudi ambassador to the United States. The plan involved blowing up a Washington D.C. restaurant and everyone in it.
He’s the incarnation of the First Marine Division motto, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy.’
Fourth, Mattis’s realism will be useful in helping the U.S. to confront Sunni extremism more effectively. As I’ve explained before, thanks to his supplication to Iran, President Obama has alienated America’s Sunni-Arab allies. Mattis, who is adored by the Sunni-Arab monarchies for his honest courage, offers the Trump administration a chance to renew those bonds. That means new potential for a Sunni-Arab crackdown on Sunni fundraising for groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. It also means we might see more special forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Of course, America faces challenges outside of the Middle East, too. Having totally discredited President Obama in Syria, Vladimir Putin is now strategizing to manipulate Trump. Mattis will make Putin’s task much more difficult. As a former NATO commander and keen student of history, he is well aware of Putin’s ploys. And, as respected by Trump as he is, he has a unique opportunity to persuade the President-elect to wake up to reality: Russia aims to toy — rather than cooperate — with America.
Given Putin’s aggression and the wave of political turmoil hitting Europe, Mattis’s appointment will spark sighs of relief in London and other NATO capitals. Trump’s erratic rhetoric on NATO has made our European allies fearful of what might come next. Mattis’s appointment is a sign that the mutual-defense status quo will hold.
#related#And finally, there’s China. Dominating the Pacific region under its new hegemony and sucking U.S. allies under its orbit, China is threatening global trade, freedom, and security. But if challenged, the Chinese will back off. Why? Because the U.S. military and its allies are more powerful than China. Mattis has the proven credibility to use that power, keeping the Chinese in check. When he says something he means it.
I hoped Trump would pick Mattis as his national security advisor, but this is an even happier outcome: He can do infinitely more good atop the Pentagon. Who knows? American red lines might even make a comeback.