Why Trump needs Mat­tis

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Doyle McManus

— Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump an­nounced that James N. Mat­tis was his choice to lead the Depart­ment of De­fense, what seemed to de­light him most was the re­tired gen­eral’s Iraq war nick­name: “Mad Dog.”

“Mad Dog Mat­tis!” Trump told a post-elec­tion rally. “Mad Dog. He is great, he is great. ... They say he is the clos­est thing to Gen. Ge­orge Patton that we have.”

Over the next few weeks, we’re go­ing to hear a lot about Mat­tis’s prow­ess as a com­bat com­man­der and his salty ex­hor­ta­tions to the troops he led.

“Be pro­fes­sional, be po­lite, but have a plan to kill ev­ery­one you meet,” he told his Marines. (A pretty good defini­tion of what com­bat forces are for, ac­tu­ally.)

And he in­cau­tiously told a partly-civil­ian au­di­ence that fight­ing is “a hell of a hoot. ... It’s fun to shoot some peo­ple.” (He apol­o­gized for that one.)

But if Trump chose Mat­tis for his mad-dog rep­u­ta­tion, he made a good choice for the wrong rea­son.

Yes, Mat­tis was a Ma­rine who de­manded “fe­roc­ity” from his troops in bat­tle. But he’s also a strate­gic thinker and scholar who or­dered his of­fi­cers to read mil­i­tary his­tory, can quote Marcus Aure­lius or Ulysses S. Grant — and never much liked the “mad dog” so­bri­quet his men be­stowed on him in An­bar prov­ince.

Off the bat­tle­field, he’s soft-spo­ken, thought­ful, cau­tious — and, most im­por­tant, un-Trum­p­like.

In­deed, Mat­tis has al­ready dis­agreed with many of the for­eign pol­icy po­si­tions Trump adopted with­out ev­i­dence of deep study dur­ing his cam­paign.

Trump has sug­gested that the United States should adopt an “Amer­ica First” for­eign pol­icy, shed­ding ex­cess obli­ga­tions and spend­ing less on tra­di­tional al­liances. Mat­tis has called for “con­tin­ued en­gage­ment in the world” and “stronger al­liances,” and said Trump’s dis­missal of the North At­lantic Treaty Al­liance was “kooky.”

When Trump called for a ban on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States, Mat­tis said the pro­posal caused “great dam­age” to U.S. re­la­tion­ships in the Mid­dle East. (Trump later soft­ened the pol­icy to “ex­treme vet­ting.”)

Trump has sug­gested that Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia could be a U.S. ally; Mat­tis con­sid­ers Putin a major threat, and be­lieves the U.S. should do more to help Ukraine.

And, as Trump him­self re­ported, Mat­tis told the pres­i­dent-elect to his face that he was wrong to sug­gest that U.S. forces should tor­ture sus­pected ter­ror­ists for in­for­ma­tion. “Give me a pack of cig­a­rettes and a cou­ple of beers, and I’ll do bet­ter,” the gen­eral told the pres­i­den­t­elect.

Trump and Mat­tis also dif­fer on Iran, which could set up one of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first big for­eign pol­icy de­bates.

Trump has said dis­man­tling Obama’s 2015 nu­clear arms deal with Tehran would be his top pri­or­ity. Mat­tis says that’s sim­ply im­prac­ti­cal.

“There’s no go­ing back,” Mat­tis said in April. “I don’t think that we can take ad­van­tage of some new pres­i­dent’s (ar­rival) and say we’re not go­ing to live up to our word on this agree­ment. I be­lieve we would be alone if we did, and uni­lat­eral eco­nomic sanc­tions from us would not have near the im­pact of an al­lied ap­proach.”

In­stead, he said, the pri­or­ity should be to keep pres­sure on Iran to curb its in­ter­ven­tion in the rest of the Mid­dle East, and to de­ter Iran from aban­don­ing the nu­clear agree­ment in the years ahead.

“I think we’re go­ing to have to hold at risk the nu­clear pro­gram in the fu­ture — in other words, make plans now of what we’d do if in fact they restarted,” he said.

There’s one big prob­lem with Mat­tis’s nom­i­na­tion: the law that pro­hibits a for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cer from be­ing sec­re­tary of De­fense un­less he or she has been re­tired for at least seven years.

It’s a sen­si­ble law, meant to guar­an­tee the prin­ci­ple of civil­ian con­trol, and it’s only been waived once be­fore, for Ge­orge C. Mar­shall in 1950. Mar­shall was an ex­tra­or­di­nary case: the chief of staff who or­ga­nized vic­tory in World War II and then served as a suc­cess­ful sec­re­tary of State.

This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary case for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: Trump needs Cab­i­net of­fi­cers who are will­ing to stand up to him and push back when he’s wrong. Mat­tis has al­ready done that.

And Trump needs some­one to bal­ance the in­flu­ence of his other fa­vorite gen­eral, the vol­canic Michael Flynn, who will be his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor. Mat­tis and Flynn, who know each other well, are likely to go headto-head on a long list of is­sues. (Ac­cord­ing to one re­port, Flynn wasn’t thrilled with the idea of nom­i­nat­ing Mat­tis, who out­ranked him four stars to three. Gen­er­als re­mem­ber de­tails like that.)

Trump’s in­fat­u­a­tion with gen­er­als — he boasted fre­quently in the cam­paign about their sup­port — some­times takes on an odd fan­boy tone. (“Mad Dog!”)

But in this case, it might be a good thing. When Mad Dog Mat­tis tells Trump that blow­ing up the Iran nu­clear agree­ment, weak­en­ing al­liances, bomb­ing civil­ians or re­in­stat­ing tor­ture is a bad idea, the boss might ac­tu­ally lis­ten.

Doyle McManus is a colum­nist for the Los An­ge­les Times. Read­ers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@ la­times.com


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