James Mattis Might Be Best We Can Hope For From Trump As Defense Secretary

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Like most observers, I am apprehensive about the names being mentioned for top positions in the Trump administration. His national security advisers are far too hawkish, although the same would be the case if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Although more hawkish than I would like, I had been thinking that General James Mattis might be about as good a choice for Secretary of Defense as could be expected in a Trump administration. He is certainly a better choice than picking Michael Flynn to be national security adviser.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton invited General Mattis to speak at their nominating conventions, which was not surprising with Clinton being the more hawkish of the two. Mattis declined both invitations, which I consider to be a point in his favor.

Mattis is more hard-line on Russia than Trump. While I was concerned about the history of belligerence and Cold War mentality towards Russia seen from Hillary Clinton, it might be safer to have someone suspicious of Russia to counterbalance Donald Trump’s crush on Putin. I am more worried about his hawkish position on Iran.

Another benefit of Mattis advising Donald Trump is that Trump was impressed when Mattis advised him that waterboarding and other forms of torture are not effective means of obtaining information. Trump quoted Mattis as saying, “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” This is advice I want Donald Trump to hear.

Thomas Ricks, author of books including Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq had the following to say about Mattis in The New York Times:

Usually, I’d oppose having a general as secretary of defense, because it could undermine our tradition of civilian control of the military.

But these are not normal times. The incoming president appears to be a profoundly ignorant man who often seems to act on gut impulse or on what pleases the crowd. That is a dangerous combination to have in the White House. Having known General Mattis for many years, I am confident that he will be a restraint on Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness. I also think he will provide a strong counterweight to some of those around Mr. Trump who hold isolationist or pro-Putin views…

It helps that General Mattis, unlike Mr. Trump, is extremely well read. I once casually mentioned to him that I planned to learn more about the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He immediately named two books that he considered good studies. He told me once that in combat he liked to have a copy in his rucksack of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman philosopher-emperor, the better to help him gain some mental distance from the battlefield.

I also think that General Mattis will provide a useful balance to Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general chosen by Mr. Trump to be national security adviser. General Flynn strikes me as an erratic figure. For example, his joining in the “lock her up” chant at the Republican convention was unseemly and, for a career military officer, unprofessional. Also, General Flynn did not have a good reputation as an administrator when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency before being moved out by the Obama administration. It will help that General Mattis retired with four stars, while General Flynn wore just three — among military men, rank matters, even in retirement.

The public notion of generals is that they know how to use only the military as a means of policy and so are more likely to get the nation into wars. That is a false conception in most cases, but especially in this one. General Mattis knows that war is the last resort, not the first one. He also understands that the threat of force works best when it works in conjunction with robust diplomatic efforts.

If it is inevitable that Trump is going to chose someone who is conservative on foreign policy, Mattis might be as good a choice as we can hope for under Trump.

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