When President Trump chose Marine Corps General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis as his Secretary of Defense, the cheers could be heard from the moon. There was bipartisan praise; social media accounts lit up with his badass quotes and he gave foes of Islamism and Iran plenty to cheer about.
Since then, Mattis’ record has been mixed. At times, we’re left wondering if President Trump accidentally appointed a alien version of Mattis.
In 2015, Mattis said to Congress, “The fundamental question I believe is, ‘Is political Islam in our best interest?’ If not, what is our policy to authoritatively support the countervailing forces?”
In a more recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, he said that our strategy is flawed because we have not identified Political Islam as the enemy. He countered the argument that calling the problem “Political Islam” would appear Islamophobic and trigger blowback by explaining that this framework would allow us to identify new and better Muslim allies.
“If we won’t even ask the question [if Political Islam is in U.S. interests], then how do we ever get to the point of recognizing which is our side in the fight? And if we don’t take our own side in this fight, we are leaving others adrift,” he said.
When Arab countries confronted Qatar for sponsoring Islamist extremism and financing terrorism after Trump’s speech in Riyadh, Mattis urged “de-escalation,” an indirect criticism of the Arab countries’ pressure on Qatar.
Mattis speaks positively of the Qatari regime, saying he agrees that terrorism-financing is a problem but, “I believe that (Qatar’s) Prince Thani inherited a difficult, very tough situation, and he’s trying to turn the society in the right direction.”
He defends Qatar as “moving in the right direction” on stopping the financing of terrorism and claims that this is “not black and white.”
Yet, the overwhelming evidence says otherwise.
Right in the midst of the clash between Qatar and other Arabs, Mattis signed a deal to sell 36 F-15 fighter jets to Qatar for $12 billion. A Qatari official boasted that “this is proof that U.S. institutions are with us, but we never doubted that. Our militaries are like brothers. America’s support for Qatar is deep-rooted and not easily influenced by political changes.”
In his speech to the Heritage Foundation, Mattis identified the Muslim Brotherhood as an adversary of the U.S. He argued for a stronger partnership with the Egyptian government and complained about the widespread perception among Egyptians that the U.S. was on the Brotherhood’s side.
He reportedly opposes designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization because of the U.S. military base in Qatar.
He also tried to pick a top ally of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Anne Paterson from the Obama Administration, for the top civilian post in the Pentagon (which is the fourth highest position overall).
His choice of Paterson, one of the Americans most detested by Egyptians, resulted in heavy criticism. He did not relent. Mattis fought for her until he ultimately had to withdraw his selection.
Mattis is very hawkish on Iran. He describes Iran as the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” even more so than ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
President Obama fired him in 2013 because of his belief that the U.S. should bomb targets in Iran.
In 2011, after U.S. troops in Iraq were targeted with Iranian munitions, he wanted to retaliate against Iran itself, such as by launching a raid against an oil refinery or power station. He argued that tough action would minimize the chances of actual war.
He also requested covert operations to kill or capture Iranian operatives involved in terrorism and seizing Iranian shipments to terrorists in Yemen and Syria and elsewhere. He especially wanted military retaliation after the U.S. foiled an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to America in which the Iranians were planning to blow up a diner in Washington D.C.
Mattis boldly said in March that U.S. efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal are not working. He favors negotiating with Iran, but wants to couple it with tougher sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Mattis supports keeping the nuclear deal with Iran, partially because “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
He is also concerned that scrapping the deal will result in Iran dashing towards developing nuclear weapons or at least the necessities for them. From his point of view, at least the deal significantly restricts Iran’s nuclear weapons activity for the time being.
Mattis also wanted to give a top Pentagon post to Michele Fluornoy, the Obama Administration’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, but she turned it down. Flournoy was widely assumed to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Secretary of Defense if she had won.
I was initially alarmed by Fluornoy in 2009 when Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks was appointed as Flournoy’s advisor. I went through Brooks’ articles and found that she is a hyper-partisan extremist.
One of her columns illogically argued that Al-Qaeda was “little more than an obscure group of extremist thugs” and said the U.S. response to 9/11 had made Al-Qaeda into an actual threat. She blamed Israel for its war with Hamas. She opposed the surge that turned Iraq around.
She was so hyper-partisan that she dismissed evidence that Iran was arming Sunni terrorists in Iraq as Bush Administration propaganda. She even claimed that President Bush was conspiring to launch an unnecessary war against Iran—which obviously never happened—and that he is “psychotic” and should be put into a straightjacket.
As a senior Pentagon official, Fluornoy had this radical columnist as her advisor for two years (afterwhich Brooks was promoted). And Mattis, as Secretary of Defense, felt Fluornoy was deserving of a senior post as his deputy.
Mattis is undoubtedly doing a good job in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His strategy is based on “annihilation” — encircling ISIS so its fighters can be captured or killed. The strategy takes longer to implement and is probably costlier, but it’s better than shuffling the jihadists from one area to the next until they move outside of Iraq and Syria to commit attacks elsewhere.
The pace of ISIS’ defeat has “dramatically accelerated” according to the State Department’s envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS. Notably, that envoy is a holdover from the Obama Administration. About one-third of ISIS’ territorial losses have happened under the Trump Administration.
Mattis says our performance has improved because lower-level commanders are being allowed to make decisions instead of being hamstrung by micromanagement from the top. The U.S. has also succeeded in getting more financial and military commitments from partners.
Mattis is realistic about the risks of regime change in Syria and of arming Syrian rebels, warning the U.S. could end up “arm[ing] people who are [our] sworn enemies.” However, he is not pro-Assad and still sees Assad’s downfall as a desirable objective.
“The collapse of the Assad regime … would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years,” he said.
Mattis seems to be of the belief that it is in America’s interests to distance itself from Israel.
He has said:
“I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Mattis also seemed to believe that Israeli settlement construction was a primary cause of the conflict with the Palestinians. He warned that Israeli was headed towards “apatheid” if it wasn’t stopped.
“If I’m 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…That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” he said.
The previously mentioned Anne Paterson, who Mattis hoped to give the top civilian post in the Pentagon to, was not only a strong friend to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. She was also been very adversarial towards Israel.
In 2013, Mattis wanted 13,600 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.
It is not known what Mattis is currently advocating or what President Trump will decide to do. President Trump’s campaign rhetoric indicates he would favor a strategy that involves as close to a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces as possible.
Mattis bluntly states that the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan as the Taliban gains ground, thanks to Pakistani, Iranian and Russian aid. And the Taliban and Al-Qaeda should not be seen as separate entities, as Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has sworn his allegiance to the Taliban chief.
Mattis apparently believes that at least a small troop increase is necessary. In June, President Trump authorized Mattis to send up to 3,900 more troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon had hoped to add up to 5,000 U.S. troops to the Afghanistan battlefield. The additional forces were not sent, presumably because Trump changed his mind.
Towards the end of July, it was reported that Trump rejected the Afghanistan strategy put forth by National Security Adviser McMaster. Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson opposed presenting it to Trump because it lacked clear benchmarks for progress.
Trump instead is looking at a plan to privatize the war by hiring 5,500 contractors and a 90-strong private air force. It is being pitched by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater.
One’s judgement of Mattis’ performance on Afghanistan comes down to whether U.S. policy makers are willing to continue the U.S. military engagement in the country. For those who argue against it, they better have a plan to deal with the massive jihadist haven that is likely to follow and explain what our leaders should do when images of brutality and news about the end of girls’ education cover our TV screens.