The President-Elect has selected retired Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as his nominee for Secretary of Defense. Mattis will be the first career-command Secretary since George Marshall (though many Defense Secretaries have had some military experience). Mattis’ extensive military career saw him involved in the Persian Gulf War as well as the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
General Mattis was in charge of Naval Taskforce 58 in operations in Southern Afghanistan and developed a reputation of “leading from the front” and being close to those under his command. Mattis was promoted to Major General and commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 United States Invasion of Iraq. Most critically, from a historical standpoint, was Mattis’ role in securing the key city of Fallujah.
Mattis’ actions earned him a reputation as a decisive and competent leader and many of his quotes show a knowledge and understanding of the missions he has been sent to achieve. In Iraq, Mattis was known to do everything he could to show cultural sensitivity and openness while still retaining the possibility of having to retaliate in the event that the mission needed that response.
General Mattis attained his fourth star and was put in charge of the Joint Forces Command in 2007. In 2010, General Mattis succeeded General David Petraeus as commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM). As head of CENTCOM, Mattis was in charge of overseeing the continued operations in Afghanistan, the drawdown of troops in Iraq, the situation in Syria, and the saber-rattling in Iran. Anecdotally, the Obama Administration has been said to have largely discounted much of Mattis’ advice about the region because he was seen as being too hawkish on Iran. In order to be Secretary of Defense, Mattis, who retired from service in 2013, will require a waiver of the seven-year waiting period established in 1947. The last waiver was granted to General Marshall.
Mattis’ nomination to be Secretary of Defense was the expected pick for Trump, who lamented on the campaign trail that the United States military was being poorly served by politicians and career-bureaucrats. Trump made a point of expressing his longing for the days of General George Patton and other “military men” who knew “how to win.”
It’s interesting to note that Mattis, while almost universally acknowledged to be a strong general and “military man” in the cut of the officers that Trump envisions, also has been noted to pursue the diplomatic angle (with the understanding that, should diplomacy fail, force should be employed). Perhaps the most interesting example was the apparent discussion had between Trump and Mattis about the use of enhanced interrogation tactics and waterboarding. Trump, who expressed on the campaign trail that a return to these procedures would be part of his plan to combat terror, was, by Trump’s own admission, challenged by Mattis about the efficacy of such methods.
While some may point to Trump’s willingness to be persuaded by people like Mattis on issues like waterboarding that were central parts of his anti-terror stump speech as signs of political weakness, the fact that Trump is listening to people who know far more about a given area than he does shows that, perhaps, some of the naysayers about Trump’s fitness to serve may have been wrong. General Mattis’ nomination also shows that Trump intends to follow through on the proposals he made during the campaign about rebuilding the United States military and listening to generals rather than to bureaucrats.