Mat­tis’ mid­dle road at­tacked from all sides

His bid to walk line on Trump crit­i­cism gets share of at­tacks

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Dan Lamothe and Greg Jaffe

WASH­ING­TON — Former De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has bro­ken months of si­lence with an in­di­rect cri­tique of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s lead­er­ship in a new book and in­ter­view.

But Mat­tis’ ef­fort to distance him­self from the White House has sparked new crit­i­cism of his ten­ure at the Pen­tagon and the way he has strad­dled his po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary iden­ti­ties.

Even in re­tire­ment, Mat­tis has sought to play the role of the re­spon­si­ble, apo­lit­i­cal, re­spected Ma­rine. In an es­say pub­lished last week in The Wall Street Journal, Mat­tis obliquely at­tacked Trump’s dis­mis­sive treat­ment of U.S. al­lies, with­out men­tion­ing the pres­i­dent by name.

“Alone, Amer­ica can­not pro­tect our peo­ple and our econ­omy,” Mat­tis wrote. “A leader must dis­play strate­gic acu­men that in­cor­po­rates re­spect for those na­tions that have stood with us when trou­ble loomed.”

In an in­ter­view also pub­lished last week in The At­lantic, granted in part to pro­mote his book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learn­ing to Lead,” Mat­tis de­fended his de­ci­sion not to di­rectly air his griev­ances with the pres­i­dent.

“You don’t en­dan­ger the coun­try by at­tack­ing the elected com­man­der in chief,” he said. “I may not like a com­man­der in chief one frick­ing bit, but our sys­tem puts the com­man­der in chief there, and to fur­ther weaken him when we’re up against real threats — I mean, we could be at war on the Korean Penin­sula.”

Mat­tis’ ap­proach — in which he vaguely de­scribes his frus­tra­tions with Trump and then says he can’t crit­i­cize him — has brought a hail of dis­ap­proval from crit­ics.

“I think he has one of two paths: He can ei­ther re­main silent ... or he can go out with very ac­tive dis­cus­sion about the di­rec­tion we should go and the prob­lems with the pres­i­dent of the United States,” said Loren DeJonge Schul­man, a De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I don’t think there is a mid­dle road.”

Schul­man, who is now a fel­low at the bi­par­ti­san Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity, de­scribed Mat­tis’ ap­proach as “in­cred­i­bly naive” and a re­flec­tion of a “lack of po­lit­i­cal as­tute­ness” that she said was ap­par­ent dur­ing his ten­ure as Pen­tagon chief.

Others ar­gued that Mat­tis’ si­lence amounts to a tacit en­dorse­ment of the pres­i­dent and his poli­cies.

“Mat­tis saw his duty as pre­vent­ing the worst from hap­pen­ing” when he was de­fense sec­re­tary, said re­tired Army Lt. Col. Ja­son Dempsey, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions. “But he also le­git­imized the worst. He lent his honor and integrity to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. He didn’t just give the pres­i­dent Jim Mat­tis’ cred­i­bil­ity. He gave Don­ald Trump the mil­i­tary’s cred­i­bil­ity.”

Mat­tis, who de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, was the first former gen­eral to serve as sec­re­tary of de­fense since Gen. Ge­orge Mar­shall was named sec­re­tary in 1950 and re­quired a waiver from Congress to serve.

He said that even af­ter he was first ap­proached by Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence about tak­ing the role in Novem­ber 2016, he did not think it would come to pass.

“I doubted I was a vi­able can­di­date,” he wrote in the Journal es­say.

Mat­tis’ back­ground as a re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cer mov­ing into a po­lit­i­cal role com­pli­cated his ten­ure in the Pen­tagon and has raised the stakes for him in re­tire­ment.

Com­pli­cat­ing Mat­tis’ sit­u­a­tion is the ex­traor­di­nar­ily di­vi­sive, and at times toxic, po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in the run-up to the 2020 elec­tion, made worse in many in­stances by Trump’s com­bat­ive lead­er­ship style.

“I don’t view it as un­eth­i­cal to write a book on gen­eral lead­er­ship prin­ci­ples, but he is set­ting him­self up for a painful se­ries of in­ter­views ... and a painful se­ries of ar­ti­cles,” Peter Feaver, who served in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ge­orge W. Bush and now teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Duke Uni­ver­sity, said of Mat­tis.

Among re­tired gen­er­als, Mat­tis oc­cu­pies a spe­cial perch as a re­spected bat­tle­field com­man­der in Iraq and Afghanista­n. In Wash­ing­ton, he is fre­quently praised for his in­tel­lect.

“I think Mat­tis in some ways is ei­ther made into a saint or the devil, and he is nei­ther,” said Kath­leen Hicks, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent for the In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “He’s a hu­man. He’s very ca­pa­ble, loyal and pa­tri­otic, and for all those rea­sons in some ways, peo­ple put upon him these bur­dens that aren’t re­al­is­tic.”

Hicks noted that Ma­rine Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a long­time friend of Mat­tis’, also has said that he will not crit­i­cize the pres­i­dent, but that there is a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween the two lead­ers at this point. Dun­ford is an ac­tive-duty Ma­rine, and Mat­tis was serv­ing as a po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed mem­ber of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“I think at heart he is that 40-year vet­eran Ma­rine, and yet he took a po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion,” Hicks said of Mat­tis. “I don’t think he ever be­came com­fort­able with the re­al­ity that it is, in fact, a po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.”

In his in­ter­view with The At­lantic, Mat­tis un­der­scored what he said is his “duty” not to crit­i­cize Trump, but he makes it clear he dis­ap­proved of some of the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­ior.

At one point, the ar­ti­cle’s au­thor reads to Mat­tis a tweet in which Trump says he is not dis­turbed by North Korea’s launch­ing “some small weapons” and then at­tacks former vice pres­i­dent Joe Biden as a “low IQ in­di­vid­ual.”

Mat­tis re­sponded that “any Ma­rine gen­eral or any other se­nior ser­vice of the peo­ple of the United States” would find it “coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and be­neath the dig­nity of the pres­i­dency.”

“Let me put it this way,” Mat­tis added. “I’ve writ­ten an en­tire book built on the prin­ci­ples of re­spect­ing your troops, re­spect­ing each other, re­spect­ing your al­lies. Isn’t it pretty ob­vi­ous how I would feel about some­thing like that?”

Mat­tis’ tor­tured response in in­ter­views mir­rors the strug­gles he faced as de­fense sec­re­tary, said Mara Kar­lin, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mer­rill Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies at Johns Hopkins Uni­ver­sity.

As a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, Mat­tis avoided pol­i­tics and “sought to fo­cus on the mer­its and sub­stance of is­sues the way a wonk or mil­i­tary of­fi­cer would,” she said. Of­ten, that meant ig­nor­ing the wishes of the pres­i­dent or the po­lit­i­cal fea­si­bil­ity of his pro­pos­als, Kar­lin said. In some cases, Mat­tis’ ap­proach put the mil­i­tary in a tougher po­si­tion.

She cited Mat­tis’ sup­port for the de­ploy­ment of troops to the south­ern bor­der to stop what Trump de­scribed as a mi­grant in­va­sion.

“The mil­i­tary is tak­ing ac­tions that are in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal,” she said, “but its lead­er­ship is try­ing to turn a blind eye to that politi­ciza­tion.”


Former Pen­tagon chief Jim Mat­tis has de­fended his de­ci­sion not to di­rectly air his is­sues with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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