Jim Mattis Just Got a Lot Lonelier
In an Administration increasingly full of bluster, the defense chief provides some needed ballast
By: Mark Thompson | March 19, 2018
The Trump administration is a lot like a TV set with the colors always set to “Vivid!” and the volume cranked all the way up to 11 (for you aging Spinal Tap fans). And it’s about to get even brighter and louder with President Trump’s March 13 decision to replace a stolid global businessman with a bellicose nationalist as the nation’s top diplomat. Bottom line: it’s a safe bet that Jim Mattis over at the Pentagon is going to be a lot more lonesome.
But make no mistake about it: Mike Pompeo, who Trump promoted from running the CIA to overseeing the State Department, is one smart guy—first in his 1986 class at West Point, among other accolades. But far more critically, he has Trump’s ear in a way no one else in this administration does. Pompeo regularly delivers the nation’s daily intelligence briefing to the president personally. It’s unusual for the CIA boss to be the regular briefer, and it wouldn’t have become normal unless the briefer and briefee get along famously. And the pair shares decidedly hawkish views on both Iran and North Korea.
Trained as a Marine, Mattis has spent his time as defense chief in a foxhole, keeping his head down and rarely holding press conferences. That has kept him from being publicly accountable to the public, but also kept him out of the president’s line of fire.
It will get even worse if the sword of Trumpocles drops and lops off the head of H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, who reportedly is a short-timer in the West Wing.
Swapping Tillerson for Pompeo will be a challenge for Mattis. While Tillerson and the Pentagon chief supported the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo and the president oppose it, and could, on behalf of the U.S., unilaterally bail out of it in May. And the restraint Mattis has displayed toward North Korea could be derailed by Trump and Pompeo’s more combative approach as Washington and Pyongyang prepare for a May summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un (Pompeo publicly pushed for an end to Jong-un’s rule last summer).
Trump cashiered Tillerson despite Mattis’s best efforts. “It starts with me having breakfast every week with Secretary of State Tillerson,” Mattis said Jan. 19 as he explained how the Defense and State departments work together to forge U.S. foreign policy. “We talk two, three times a day, sometimes. We settle all of our issues between he and I, and then we walk together into the White House meetings. That way, State and Defense are together.”
So much for togetherness.
For all his faults, Tillerson did serve alongside Mattis as a two-man front to keep Trump in line overseas. Inertia can be a good thing when the status quo, as unsatisfying as it often is, is better than change that goes off the rails. The grass is not always greener in the striped-pants world (cf., Iraq). While Tillerson’s skill as a diplomatic morale-builder and team player were lacking, the one-time Eagle Scout and Mattis comprised the axis-of-common-sense inside the Trump administration’s national-security apparatus.
Tillerson singled out Mattis by name in his final briefing at the State Department, and too fulsomely praised their departments’ relationship. “I’m told for the first time in most people’s memory, the Department of State and Department of Defense have a close working relationship, where we all agree that U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy,” he said. Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton might quarrel with that, but we should cut him some slack: he was emotional, having just been unceremoniously fired after a nightlong flight back to Washington from Africa.
They’re holding their breath inside the Pentagon. U.S. military officials believe Mattis can hold his own against Pompeo. But they’re concerned that fragile balance could be upset if McMaster leaves his White House post. The Army lieutenant general, who has clashed with the commander-in-chief, has been a calming influence inside a chaotic administration. But all bets are off if he is replaced with a firebrand like former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who just last month penned a column titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First” in the Wall Street Journal. Bolton also shows up regularly on Fox News to talk about world affairs (“The president is said to enjoy his commentary,” the Daily Beast reported just before Trump picked another TV pundit, Lawrence Kudlow, to head his economic team).
Trump likes folks who explode on television, perhaps echoing his 14-year run on NBC’s The Apprentice (where he’d end each episode with by banishing a participant with the catchphrase “You’re fired!”). Like Trump, Pompeo and Bolton love the limelight, and regularly publicly and loudly push their agendas.
Mattis, by contrast, has been the gray, sensible leader, toiling far from the bright lights of the Pentagon briefing room. Trained as a Marine, Mattis has spent his time as defense chief in a foxhole, keeping his head down and rarely holding press conferences. That has kept him from being publicly accountable to the public, but also kept him out of the president’s line of fire. Trump hailed him by one nickname—“Mad Dog”—when he tapped the retired four-star Marine general to run the U.S. military. But the history-loving Mattis’ true leanings are gleaned from another sobriquet he picked up during his 41 years as a Marine: the warrior monk. Flying back to Washington on Mar. 15, Mattis swatted away questions about Tillerson’s firing. “In most parts of the world, this is a Washington, D.C., story,” he said dismissively. He declined to say when he had learned of the secretary of state’s dismissal.
But military scholar Eliot Cohen warns that Tillerson’s ouster ushers in a “conniving and dishonest court” that threatens “the lone pillar of integrity in the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.”
Or perhaps Pompeo could surprise everyone and become more like Mattis himself. “As secretary of state, he’d be smart to model his behavior on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the administration’s one undisputed star, who thrives in his job because he’s plainly not afraid of losing it, much less of speaking his mind,” Bret Stephens said in his March 15 New York Times column. (While highly-regarded both inside the U.S. military and in official Washington, Mattis isn’t bulletproof, as his role as backer and board member of the blood-testing firm Theranos, which settled government charges of “massive fraud” March 14, reveals.)
There’s a minority view that says scrambling Trump’s foreign-policy squad could end up being a good thing. After all, the nation has been mired in an inconclusive stalemate in Afghanistan for 16 years and perhaps the globe would benefit from some shaking up—like a real, gigantic snow globe. The realpolitik establishment doesn’t think so, but it hasn’t been doing particularly well since the Cold War’s end. Watching this evolving foreign-policy team is going to be a hold-your-breath experience, with low odds and high stakes. So buckle your seat belt.
Speaking of flying, when I traveled the world with defense secretaries, most trips consisted of lengthy flights punctuated by boring days sitting around assorted palaces and defense ministries. The Pentagon chiefs would huddle behind closed doors with assorted potentates and pooh-bahs. Then, sometimes on the next leg of the trip, the defense secretary would gather the handful of reporters accompanying him to deliver some bon mots.
We pressies were starving grackles, eager for some sunflower kernels to impress the home office that the trip was worthwhile and that we were plugged in to what was going on. You’d want the defense chief to make news. Yet, that’s what made Mattis’ March 10 performance so exceptional. He spoke to reporters on his plane as he flew to the “arc of crisis” stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. It’s a part of the world he knows well, having overseen it as chief of the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.
He didn’t over-react to the fresh claim of Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow can defeat the U.S. missile shield and has developed nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles. “I get paid to make strategic assessments, and I would just tell you that I saw no change to the Russian military capability,” Mattis said. “They do not impact any need on our side for a change in our deterrent posture.” A more Pavlovian defense chief would have used Putin’s comments as a pry bar for even more money from Congress.
Mattis also kept his own counsel about the wisdom of his boss sitting down to talk nuclear weapons with the murderous megalomaniac running North Korea. “I do not want to talk about Korea at all,” he said during the same session, because—get this—he’s not involved. “I want those who are actually engaging in the discussions,” Mattis said, “to be actually the ones who answer all media questions.”
Washington would be a much quieter place if that ever happened. But, as far as war and peace goes, it’s looking like the capital is going to be getting even louder in the coming days. Here’s hoping Mattis isn’t shy about speaking up behind closed doors, and speaking out if his private counsel is ignored.
UPDATE: On Thursday, March 22, Trump announced that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is resigning. He will be replaced by former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton on April 9.