US POLITICS: ANALYSIS
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Donald Trump

Donald Trump will choose retired General James Mattis as new secretary of defence

Mattis served more than four decades in the Marine Corps and is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 9:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 10:58pm

US president-elect Donald Trump has confirmed he will choose retired Marine General James Mattis to be secretary of defence, selecting a former senior military officer who has said that responding to “political Islam” is the major security issue facing the US. Trump made the announcement during a post-election victory rally on Thursday in Cincinnati.

“We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defence,” Trump told the crowd, referring by nickname to the tough-talking general.

Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States? I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion
General James Mattis

“He’s our best. They say he’s the closest thing to [second world war] general George Patton that we have,” Trump continued, apparently divulging his pick days ahead of schedule as his transition team had already said there would be no more cabinet announcements this week.

“Okay. So I gave up a little secret. My people over there are probably saying: ‘You weren’t supposed to do that, Mr Trump’.”

Mattis, who retired as chief of US Central Command in 2013, has often said that Washington lacks an overall strategy in the Middle East, opting to instead handle issues in an ineffective one-by-one manner.

“Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?” Mattis said at the Heritage Foundation in 2015, speaking about the separate challenges of the Islamic State and Iranian-backed terrorism. “I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion. If we won’t even ask the question, how do we even recognise which is our side in a fight?”

To take the job, Mattis will need Congress to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law stating that defence secretaries must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress has granted a similar exception just once, when General George Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950.

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Mattis, 66, served more than four decades in the Marine Corps and is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation, serving as a strategic thinker while occasionally drawing rebukes for his aggressive talk. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University.

Like Trump, Mattis favours a tougher stance against US adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Mattis said the next president “is going to inherit a mess” and argued that the nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama’s administration last year may slow Iran’s ambitions to get a nuclear weapon but will not stop them. But he added that “absent a clear and present violation,” he did not see a way that Washington could go back on it, because any unilateral sanctions issued by the US would not be as valuable if allies were not on board.

“In terms of strengthening America’s global standing among European and Middle Eastern nations alike, the sense is that America has become somewhat irrelevant in the Middle East, and we certainly have the least influence in 40 years,” Mattis said.

The sense is that America has become somewhat irrelevant in the Middle East, and we certainly have the least influence in 40 years
General James Mattis

But Mattis may break with Trump’s practice of calling out allies for not doing enough to build stability. Mattis served from November 2007 to August 2010 as the supreme allied commander of transformation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, focused on improving the military effectiveness of allies. Trump called Nato “obsolete” earlier this year before saying later that he was “all for Nato” but wanted all members to spend at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence, a Nato goal.

“The president-elect is smart to think about putting someone as respected as Jim Mattis in this role,” said a former senior Pentagon official. “He’s a warrior, scholar and straight shooter – literally and figuratively. He speaks truth to everyone and would certainly speak truth to this new commander in chief.”

Mattis, whose nicknames include “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk”, has had a leading hand in some of the US military’s most significant operations in the past 20 years. As a one-star general, he led an amphibious task force of Marines that carried out a November 2001 raid in helicopters on Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, giving the Pentagon a new foothold against the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Using the call sign “Chaos”, he commanded a division of Marines during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and returned there the following year to lead Marines in bloody street fighting in the city of Fallujah.

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Mattis occasionally has come under scrutiny for impolitic remarks. Most notably, he said in 2005 during a panel discussion in San Diego that “it’s fun to shoot some people” and “I like brawling,” drawing criticism from the Marine commandant at the time, Gen. Michael Hagee.

But Hagee also later backed Mattis, saying the general often spoke with candour to reflect the horrors of war. Other supporters noted that he often stressed to his troops that it was important to treat civilians in a combat zone with care.