Most of the coverage of James Mattis’s new book, Call Sign Chaos, co-authored with Bing West, deals with the former defense secretary’s relationship with President Trump. The Atlantic‘s pre-publication interview with Mattis was headlined, “The Man Who Couldn’t Take It Anymore.” The New York Times editorial page ran a column about Mattis called “The Man Trump Wishes He Were.”
Both articles establish that Mattis doesn’t have much to say right now, in either the book or in interviews, about President Trump. Neither piece, though, mentions another president about whom Mattis is more than willing to dish. That would be Barack Obama, who was Mattis’s commander in chief when the then–Marine general led Central Command. Mattis’s critique of Obama isn’t just harsh. It’s blistering.
Mattis’s tenure at Central Command lasted from 2010 to 2013. It was during this time that the Obama administration took steps that diminished American influence in the greater Middle East and empowered Iran. The spillover effect includes the migrant crisis that contributed to the rise of national populism in Europe. Mattis dissented from Obama policy. “In 2010,” he writes, “I argued strongly against pulling all our troops out of Iraq.”
When the Arab Spring came to Egypt in 2011, “I thought we should use quiet diplomacy to urge inclusive government.” Obama instead called for Hosni Mubarak to resign. Mattis writes:
President Obama came out vocally against Mubarak, insisting that in Egypt, “we were on the right side of history.” Having read a bit of history and found that events, good and bad, had been “written” by both good and evil characters, I put little stock in the idea that history books yet to be written would somehow give yearning Arabs what they fervently desired today.
In the spring of 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil. Mattis urged the White House to make the public case for reprisals against Tehran. He was rebuffed. “We treated an act of war as a law enforcement violation, jailing the low level courier.”
Through it all, Mattis was dealing with Iran’s malign behavior across the region. “Each step along the way, I argued for political clarity and offered options that gave the Commander in Chief a rheostat he could dial up or down to protect our nation.” The commander in chief wasn’t interested. He turned the rheostat off.
Mattis was informed he would be relieved of command in December 2012. He writes:
I was leaving a region aflame and in disarray. The lack of an integrated regional strategy had left us adrift, and our friends confused. We were offering no leadership or direction. I left my post deeply disturbed that we had shaken our friends’ confidence and created vacuums that our adversaries would exploit.
The following year, Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. “This was a shot not heard around the world,” Mattis writes. He continues:
Old friends in NATO and in the Pacific registered dismay and incredulity that America’s reputation had been seriously weakened as a credible security partner. Within thirty-six hours, I received a phone call from a friendly Pacific-nation diplomat. “Well, Jim,” he said, “I guess we’re on our own with China.”
Americans will have to wait for Mattis’s full assessment of the Trump presidency. We were provided some clues in his resignation letter. It has also been reported that Mattis left over differences with the president regarding troop deployments in Syria and the potential abandonment of U.S. partners there.
In the meantime, at this very moment, we have Mattis’s devastating assessment of Barack Obama’s foreign policy and its calamitous effects on American prestige and American power. Maybe we ought to pay attention?