SIMI VALLEY, CALIF.: You might not think a man nicknamed “Mad Dog” would put America’s allies at ease. But that’s the buzz here at the Reagan Library’s annual defense conference, where Donald Trump‘s choice of Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon met with enthusiastic praise from the right, from the left, and from overseas.
It looks like the retired four-star’s motto for his Marines in Iraq — “No better friend, no worse enemy” — is true of the man himself. Our allies may be at best nonplussed by Trump, but they know what to make of Mattis because they’ve worked and fought alongside him.
“We have a lot of military personnel who have experience working with him,” Norwegian defense minister Ine Eriksen Søreide told the Reagan National Defense Forum. (Norway has sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq). Soon after Mattis was picked, she said, she started getting celebratory texts from members of the Norwegian military, especially members of her country’s special forces, who worked with Mattis particularly closely.
“I’m looking forward to working with him, as are our military, who know him very well,” said the UK’s Secretary of State for Defense, Michael Fallon. Fallon pointed out to reporters that the general served alongside European allies as both NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation and as chief of US Central Command.
In both those jobs, Mattis has testified repeatedly on the Hill to the importance of allies and partners, said Sen. Dan Sullivan. That the US is “ally rich” while rivals like Russia and China are “ally poor” is a great strategic advantage, and Mattis is “very focused” on cultivating that advantage, Sullivan told the conference, before pledging to work for a speedy confirmation.
“Anybody named ‘mad dog’ is gonna get my vote,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham to loud laughter. Nicknames aside, though, “he’s one of the most sophisticated thinkers in the defense world I’ve ever met,” Graham continued. This is especially high praise given the senator’s scathing past criticism of Trump: The president-elect’s appointees don’t get a free pass from Graham.
In particular, Graham continued, having Mattis as Defense Secretary means “we’re going to have a different relationship with the Arab world and Iran.” Picking Mattis, he said, is “a signal to the Arabs” that the US is about to get tough on Iran, whom our Sunni Arab allies dread.
By some reports, Mattis may have even lost his job at CENTCOM because he was too hawkish on Iran for the Obama Administration, which was laboring on a controversial nuclear deal with the Iranians at the time. “That’s one of the reasons [for] having a man like Gen. Mattis on board to be secretary of defense,” said former Vice-President Dick Cheney, citing the news stories approvingly. “He fully understands those threats.”
Of course, the idea that Mattis might be hawkish on Iran will not be reassuring to everyone. Nor will endorsement from Cheney, one of the primary authors of the Iraq war now entering its 13th year. Yet even Leon Panetta, an outspoken Democrat — albeit one with his own painful differences with the Obama White House — endorsed Mattis without reservation.
“Jim Mattis, having worked for me as CENTCOM commander, is a great soldier [sic], somebody who really understands defense, very thoughtful,” said the former secretary of defense. “I’m pleased that he [Trump] appointed somebody like Gen. Mattis,” Panetta continued. Panetta couldn’t help adding, “I hope he appoints somebody at Secretary of State who understands the issues” — clearly implying that Mattis does understand them.
What about the appointment of a recently retired military officer as Secretary of Defense, a position meant to embody civilian control of the armed forces? Well, replied Panetta, the Senate will have to waive the requirement that any officer have spent at least seven years in civilian life before becoming SecDef, and that process will be a useful opportunity to discuss the principle of civilian control and make sure everyone gets it, including Mattis on the off chance he doesn’t already.
But the vote itself should be an easy yes, Panetta continued — at least for Mattis: There might not be the same willingness to waive the seven-year rule for somebody else. That said, the rule itself is somewhat arbitrary.
“Who the hell are we kidding?” Panetta exclaimed to laught. “Seven years, where the hell did that come from?… Somebody figured in seven years, ‘oh, you’ve become a civilian’?”
You can take the man out of the military, in other words, but after decades of service, you can’t take the military out of the man. In many cases, including Mattis’, those years in uniform teach skills that are the exact opposite of the pop-culture stereotype of generals in general, and Marines in particular, as cigar-chomping, tough-talking, perpetually snarling human bulldogs.
It’s important to remember that since the birth of the Republic, when George Washington relied on Lafayette and Rochambeau for victory, high-level command has been as much about international diplomacy as it is about military strategy. (War is the extension of global politics by other means). Much like Dwight Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Mattis’ job at CENTCOM in particular required cajoling, coercing, and reassuring independent-minded allies.
Barking orders might work back at base in the US , but it won’t get you far with an international coalition. Mattis may have the image of the hard-nosed, blunt-talking Marine, with nicknames like “Mad Dog” and “Warrior Monk,” but the real man is more complex. To do his job, Mattis sometimes needed to speak softly, even while he carried a big stick.
That’s a principle Mattis’s new boss would do well to take to heart in his ongoing evolution from real estate tycoon to reality TV star to presidential candidate to commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world.
“We’re quite careful in Europe to distinguish between campaign rhetoric and what an administration actually does in practice,” the UK’s Fallon told reporters. “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” Fallon continued, quoting Mario Cuomo. ” I’m not going to accuse Donald Trump of poetry, but, you know, we have to wave off some of the campaign rhetoric.”