“Mad Dog” Mattis: Trump’s Least Belligerent Foreign Policy Advisor?

by Derek Davison

During a surreal, post-election “campaign rally” in Cincinnati on Thursday night, President-elect Donald Trump announced (or, to be completely accurate, announced that he would be announcing) that he’s selected retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as his nominee for secretary of defense. Prior to his retirement from the military, Mattis served as the commander of U.S. Central Command from August 2010 through March 2013.

In terms of policy, Mattis is known first and foremost as an Iran hawk, as Jim Lobe wrote about several days ago:

Mattis described five military threats posed by Iran to the U.S. and/or its regional allies: the “latent threat of the nuclear weapons program,” the counter-maritime program, the ballistic missile program, cyberwar, and the threat posed by Iranian-backed militias, such as Hezbollah. He clearly sees the JCPOA as neutralizing the nuclear threat for defensible reasons but suggests that the others need to be addressed more aggressively.

One key passage also suggests that Mattis believes that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran are somehow in cahoots. It came when he was talking about the perception among U.S. allies in the region that the Obama administration was at best indifferent to Iran’s alleged activities and, at worst, somehow making “common cause with Iran, Russia, and Assad…”:

I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief [in the region]. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.

I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.

Foreign Policy’s military analyst Thomas Ricks suggested in a 2013 column that Mattis’s consistent and vocal hostility toward Iran may have contributed to his removal as CENTCOM commander. However, Mattis has also argued that the U.S. cannot simply tear up or abandon the Iran nuclear deal. Here’s Jim again:

Nonetheless, unlike Flynn and Pompeo, Mattis makes clear that Washington should abide by the JCPOA, which he sees as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” because any withdrawal, especially in the absence of support from its allies, would put Washington and the region “on a road to perdition.” Moreover, he repeatedly defends sticking by the agreement, saying at one point:

I want to make clear there’s no going back. Absent a clear and present violation [by Iran], I don’t think we can take advantage of some new president—Republican or Democrat—and say, ‘well, we’re not going to live up to our word in this agreement.’ I believe we’d be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.

As Jim says, this puts Mattis at odds with two other prominent Trump foreign policy appointees: National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn and CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, both of whom oppose the deal and have made public statements in favor of provoking a military confrontation with Tehran. Although Mattis likely wouldn’t oppose a confrontation with Iran, he hasn’t openly called for one, either, and even hinted at an openness to engaging with “Iranian generals” when he was at CENTCOM. In short, though he’s an “Iran hawk,” Mattis doesn’t seem to be particularly out of the mainstream in the U.S. foreign policy community, at least not when compared to people like Flynn and Pompeo.

Picking a Fight with Pro-Israel Groups?

Mattis’s views on Israel, may pose a bit of a challenge for the Trump administration. He has been deeply critical of Israeli settlement policy and has suggested that America “pays a price” for its pro-Israel posture:

“I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians,” Mattis said in 2013 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

At the same forum he criticized Israel for settlement building, saying that the settlements “are going to make it impossible to maintain the two-state option.”

He said the settlements would undermine Israel as both a Jewish and Democratic state, and said the settlements would lead to apartheid.

“If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid,” he said.

This obviously puts Mattis at odds with Trump himself, whose top Israel advisor, Jason Greenblatt, said just after the election that “it is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.” It also creates a situation where pro-Israel groups may oppose Mattis’s selection. Last week, in response to rumors about Mattis’s candidacy, the Zionist Organization of America issued a statement (that since appears to have been deleted from their own website) saying that Mattis’s 2013 remarks “revealed a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the extraordinary value to American security resulting from a strong American-Israeli alliance and a secure Israel” and urging “that Mattis not be appointed” as Defense Secretary.

Hawkish on Russia, but Not on Torture

Another apparent point of disagreement between Trump and Mattis appears to be Russia. Trump famously spent much of the 2016 campaign lavishing praise on Russian president Vladimir Putin, and since his election both men have talked about the possibility of repairing the U.S.-Russia relationship. Mattis, however, has expressed concern about Russia’s international intentions:

He said Russia’s military moves against its neighbors—taking Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine is “much more severe, more serious” than Washington and the European Union are treating it.

The nationalist emotions that Russian President Vladimir Putin has stirred up will make it “very, very hard [for him or his successors] to pull back from some of the statements he has made” about the West. At the same time, Putin faces problems of his own with jihadists inside Russia’s borders that threaten domestic stability.

But Putin also demonstrated Russia’s nuclear capability with long-range bomber flights near NATO countries. His intent is “to break NATO apart.”

Mattis also opposes torture, which makes him an interesting choice for a president-elect who promised to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” during the campaign. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Trump described a meeting with Mattis and said that he was “surprised” and “impressed” by the former general’s anti-torture views. This suggests that Mattis may be able to influence Trump away from his stated position on torture, though it does not, as the Times exaggeratedly wrote, mean that Trump has “changed his mind” on the issue.

Putting a General in Charge of the Pentagon

What we know of Mattis’s views—hawkish but not shockingly so on Iran, opposed to Israeli settlements, skeptical of engagement with Russia, opposed to torturing detainees—suggests that he could be the most mainstream, and least provocative, foreign policy appointment that Trump has yet made. But there are concerns about his selection that have nothing to do with Mattis specifically and everything to do with the idea of naming a recently retired general as secretary of defense.

Defense secretary is explicitly a civilian position, meant to enforce the principle of civilian government control over the military. Since 1947 it has been federal law that commissioned officers should be ineligible to serve as defense secretary for a period of several years—initially10, but reduced to seven in 2008—after retirement in order to avoid the risk of militarizing the civilian chain of command. One exception to this law was made in 1950, when President Harry Truman appointed George Marshall as secretary of defense. Congress approved a waiver for Marshall, but the legislation granting that waiver says “after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”

Nevertheless, Mattis will likely have no problem obtaining a similar waiver, despite the opposition of some Democratic senators. As an isolated case Mattis’s appointment will not likely be cause for concern. But with Trump having already named a retired general as his national security advisor, and considering other retired flag officers for positions as secretary of state, secretary of Homeland Security, and director of national intelligence, there are increasing concerns that, in addition to creating a cabinet of oligarchs, Trump may also be putting together something more like a military junta than a civilian government.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Iraq started its idiotic war with Iran in 1980. And the US started its idiotic war with Iraq in 2003.

  2. If someone would only explain — with illustration and evidence, not Israeli propaganda — what “mischief” Iran gets up to in the Middle East, one could perhaps understand why Iran, unlike all the other signatories of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, either agrees to forswear all the rights the Treaty gives Iran, or be punished with sanctions.

    Of course, Iran has its own favourite “terrorists” — Hezbolah and Hamas, which are only “terrorists” because Israel insists that they be put on the Imperial List of Terrorists. But how is that different from every other country’s favourite shit-disturbers? (Is it any wonder that ‘false news’ is beginning to get on everyone’s nerves. It’s been on my nerves for decades.)

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