Michael O’Hanlon presented recently a persuasive argument why Defense Secretary James Mattis should stay on the job for at least the duration of Trump’s first term in order to finish his current initiatives — apparently in response to unsubstantiated rumors that Mattis’s reputation has grown among some anti-Trump establishment circles as the “adult in the room” who can redirect Trump into proper lanes, or in reaction to the unsourced assertions of Bob Woodward (all denied by Mattis) that the secretary had deprecated Trump in his absence.
In truth, Mattis has never been more important to Trump. His reputation as a no-nonsense advocate of deterrence gains more resonance as we seem to be returning to more conventional, traditional, and big-power challenges from Russia, China, and Iran in the Persian Gulf. That increased deterrence is largely as a result of Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal, tough talk on trade, Chinese provocativeness in the South China Sea, and stepped-up sanctions against Russia, including efforts to corral Vladimir Putin.
For all the talk of disruption and chaos in foreign policy, at the close of the administration’s second year, there is emerging a new strategic clarity that reflects the efforts of a superb foreign-policy team of Pompeo, Bolton, Mattis, Haley, etc.
Certainly, there is new support for the U.S. among the moderate Arab regimes and Israel to deter Iran.
Japan and South Korea seem quietly on board with efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Asian countries are less worried about the reliability of the U.S. to protect them from insidious Chinese aggression. China’s once inevitable ascendance seems far more problematic in the last two years.
ISIS is severely wounded. The Iranians are no longer testing U.S. responses or lack of them in the Persian Gulf.
Our European allies are, of course, vocal in their anger at Trump’s pushback against NATO and the EU. But, privately, they accept that the EU’s existential challenges on immigration, Brexit, north–south financial crises, and Germany’s mercantile trade policies predated Trump, as did European NATO members’ paradoxical notion that they are on the front-lines of challenges from Russia and radical Islam, and yet have been reluctant to meet their own promised commitments on defense expenditures. Trump’s art-of-deal pushback on trade asymmetry is mostly understood not as a new age of tariffs, but a loud, but long overdue effort to restore 50/50 parity.
In all these matters, Mattis’s style may be different from Trump’s, but the substance of his efforts is the same — at least as evidenced by being in sync with former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster’s strategic papers on principled realism, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s replay of Jean Kirkpatrick’s tenure, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stellar efforts to codify and institutionalize American ideas of support for longstanding allies and clear opposition to obdurate enemies, and John Bolton’s recalibrating of American relations with the U.N. and ICC, and his reevaluation of the ossified notion of Palestinians as perpetual “refugees” (all other displaced peoples from the late 1940s have long ago lost that status). A strong defense capability and a quiet but clear willingness to use it to deter unwise adventurous enemies support all those efforts.
In sum, Mattis’s military experience, his long relationships with allies, and his blunt assessments have served the administration well, and currently seem to be especially valuable as the U.S. pivots to new challenges. Mattis is invaluable. That fact becomes clearer each month that he serves.