After Months Of Trash Talk, Trump Embraces Generals

President-elect Donald Trump picked another high-ranking former general for his cabinet, with James "Mad Dog" Mattis for Defense Secretary

U.S. Marine Corps four-star general James Mattis — REUTERS
Dec 03, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

Oh, what a difference a day makes, specifically election day. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump rarely passed on an opportunity to denigrate U.S. military leaders. Now, he’s filling his cabinet with them.

At a Commander-in-Chief Forum earlier this year, candidate Trump said that the generals in uniform were “embarrassing” to America, and had collectively been “reduced to rubble.” Trump insisted that he knew more about how to defeat the Islamic State than the generals. When asked to explain those remark, Trump replied “They don’t know much because they’re not winning.”

In candidate Trump’s calculation “not winning” equated to being a loser, a category that presumably included former prisoners of war such as Republican Senator John McCain, who Trump famously insisted was no war hero. “He was a war hero because he was captured,” said candidate Trump. “I like people who weren’t captured.”

President-elect Trump has clearly come to view military leadership and experience in a very different light. The Trump transition team has considered an unprecedented five flag officers for top jobs in his cabinet and administration. Trump has already named retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his National Security Adviser in the White House. The transition team is also reportedly seriously considering retired Army General David Petraeus for Secretary of State; retired Marine Corps General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security; and current National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers as the Director of National Intelligence, with oversight of the entire Intelligence Community.

And now comes news that Trump has chosen retired Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as his Secretary of Defense. The anticipated appointment will mark the first time a retired general has been placed in that job in nearly 70 years, and his confirmation will require Congress to pass legislation bypassing a federal law that forbids defense secretaries from having served on active duty in the previous seven years.

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Despite the campaign rhetoric, it is not altogether surprising that President-elect Trump and his transition team are suddenly drawn to the ranks of former flag officers. They stand somewhat apart from the Washington establishment of lobbyists and policy experts that Trump routinely eviscerated on the campaign trail, many of whom signed “Never Trump” pledges. They also lend heft to a future commander-in-chief who talks tough on rebuilding the U.S. military and confronting U.S. adversaries like ISIS, Iran and North Korea. Above all they offer expertise and deep international experience to an administration that has otherwise promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington insiders. For all of those reasons, the choice of Mattis as Secretary of Defense in the new Trump administration was greeted by sighs of relief among many foreign affairs and national security experts.

“For experts who were very worried about the kinds of appointments Trump would make to his cabinet, especially in the realm of national security, I think the choice of Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense will calm a lot of nerves,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Cancian has held senior civilian positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as a former colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves he served under Mattis in Iraq.

“Mattis has all the qualifications to be a great secretary,” Cancian said. As the former head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for the Middle East and Southwest Asia, he noted, Mattis knows how to run a large organization. He also served as the supreme allied commander of transformation for the NATO alliance, and is well-known and respected by European leaders who are nervous about Trump’s comments that NATO is “obsolete.” Mattis also has a reputation as a leader revered by the rank-and-file troops who he led into combat on multiple tours in Iraq.

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“When Mattis walks into the Pentagon on his first day everyone will respect his experience and reputation as an outstanding military commander in wartime,” said Cancian. “Already he seems to have convinced Trump to back away from waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ not by making a moral argument, but rather by arguing those techniques don’t really work. Mattis has gotten in trouble in the past for saying things like it’s ‘fun’ to shoot extremists who abuse women, which horrified coastal elites. But military audiences love that kind of talk – and it’s very Trumpian!”

Some observers have predicted friction between a Secretary of Defense Mattis, a former four-star Marine Corps general, and former three-star Army general Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser in waiting. Sources who know both men well, however, insist that they are simpatico. In fact, both Mattis and Flynn ran afoul of the Obama administration by arguing that it was underestimating the threat posed by Iran and ISIS, Mattis when he commanded U.S. Central Command, and Flynn when he was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Both officers were pushed out of their jobs before completing the traditional tenure in those positions.

“Generals Mattis and Flynn get along very well, because they were both raising the alarm about the threat posed by Iran and ISIS at a time when very few other officials in the Obama administration wanted to hear about it,” said a former senior national security official who is friendly with both Mattis and Flynn. “As for Mattis, he’s a warrior statesmen who is extremely well-read, is loved by his troops, doesn’t put up with a lot of BS, and he gets the job done. And if you asked him what threats keep him awake at night, he would tell you three – Iran, Iran, and Iran.”

Indeed, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, Mattis characterized the Iranian regime as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” He believes the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration last year may slow Iran’s ambitions to get a nuclear weapon, but it is unlikely to end them. However, “absent a clear and present violation,” Mattis did not think Washington should abrogate the nuclear deal because our allies would not agree to resuming sanctions, and unilateral sanctions would prove ineffective.

Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., where Mattis has served as a board member. “Given the huge amount of uncertainty over the likely composition of a Trump national security team, I do think Mattis’ designation as Defense Secretary has been greeted widely with a breadth of relief,” he said in an interview. “I understand the theoretical concerns about maintaining a tradition of strict civilian control of the military by making generals wait at least seven years before being considered for that job, but these are pretty exceptional times in America’s political life. If Congress has to invoke the first exception to that rule in 70 years to put the best person in the job – and Jim Mattis may be that person – then so be it.”