General Mattis’ Audacious Mission
A lot of printer ink must have spilled over Donald Trump’s wisdom nominating retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, and whether he will be a good Secretary of Defense. I do not claim to know General Mattis, but I met him for a luncheon meeting at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany many years ago. I found out through my Marine Corps contact that he and I were going to be at the NATO School for speaking engagements. I sent a message through his aide to ask whether he would like to sit in my lecture to a large group of senior Iraqi military officers and civilians. He could not, because of the scheduling conflict, but he graciously asked me to join him for lunch. The NATO School protocol arranged for me sit across the table from him.
We had a pleasant conversation. He asked me several questions about Iraqi politics and other strategic issues affecting that country and the Arab world. I was both surprised and humbled to see that he pulled out a notebook and took notes. I have no clue what he wrote down. However, at the end of the conversation, he looked at me with a smile and said, see, I not only listen but also take notes!
Since that conversation and now, I only communicated with Mattis twice but watched a long interview he gave, on several issues, on the Middle East and Islam at the Hoover Institution, where he is currently serving as a Senior Fellow, and read quite a bit about him. He is undoubtedly a person who loves to acquire much knowledge about issues of his personal and professional interests. However, on the issues of the Arab world, the Middle East, and Islam, he remains a work in progress. More on the subject later in this essay.
As a ‘monk-general,’ Mattis is direly needed in the Trump cabinet, where expertise in the national security affairs is thin. Donald Trump’s lack of knowledge in foreign policy is not a major issue to me. His last three predecessors—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—entered the presidency with zero experience and little knowledge of foreign policy matters. What concerns me is that Trump, unlike Clinton and Obama, has shown no predilection for learning anything either about the nuances of America’s national security affairs, or about the security concerns of our major allies and adversaries.
In his public utterances boasting about his “smartness,” Trump has depicted his expertise in deal-making as his version of a magic bullet. Even though he was right about the unwillingness of most of the NATO members to make their fair share of military investments, he neglected to underscore how significant role that alliance has played in containing the Former Soviet Union (FSU) during the entire Cold War years. Similarly, he neglected to emphasize the role of numerous major allies in East Asia, West Asia, and Europe (mainly because he does not have any understanding of it) in shoring up America’s strategic interests in their respective regions through an unflagging support.
James Mattis as Secretary of Defense comes well-equipped with a historical overview of America’s role in building the post-World War II global order. More to the point, he brings to the platter a deep comprehension of the anxieties and concerns of our allies about their security concerns and its relationship to America’s primacy of the global order. In that capacity, he is likely to assuage the fears of our allies’ apprehensions related to Trump insistence on America Firstism.
However, working for a President who is likely to conduct foreign policy via frequent and impulsive tweeting, and as a President who is likely to listen to a variety of ill-considered advice by relying on his ‘strategic advisor’ Steve Bannon, or his National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn—two individuals who have already become the lightning rod for controversy the moment their names were announced—Mattis is in for recurrent and unpleasant surprises in his civilian job. In that capacity, his work is cut out for him more in doing damage control than providing his best advice.
Just how much weight would President Trump give to Mattis’ advice over that of Flynn’s, when they differ (which is likely to happen a lot)? Alternately, how frequently Trump is likely to seek Mattis’ advice—who either will be in the Pentagon or out in the three theaters of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, or visiting the distant capitals of our adversaries and allies—on broad issues of national security, rather than reaching out for Flynn, who will be right there in the White House.
If Mattis were not to have adequate opportunities to present Pentagon’s perspectives to Trump on major defense and other national security issues, then that issue itself would become a source of loss of influence and low credibility of a seasoned, thoughtful and a proud general.
That leads me to an important conclusion (hopefully not wrongly) about Mattis’ potential blind spot. As much as Mattis’ scholarly approach to the profession of warfare has been touted in the media, I have serious reservations about his knowledge of the Middle East and especially about Islam. I watched his interview with Peter Robinson in 2015 when he described Islam as a “murderous religion.” He was describing an alleged statement of General Sisi of Egypt, but Sisi would be the last person who would depict Islam in such nefarious terms. In reality, the speech that Mattis was referring to was given by Sisi at al-Azhar; but in that speech, the Egyptian President stated: “We are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move.” I continue to wonder whether, by grossly misquoting Sisi, Mattis was airing his true feelings about Islam. If so, now as Secretary of Defense nominee, he must clarify it.
Mattis has been an unabashed hardliner on Iran, and a vocal critic of U.S.-Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). However, listening to his interview with Robinson, he also seems to carry a deep resentment of Iran’s alleged role in the Beirut bombing of 1983. One can fully understand that, but as United States’ Secretary of Defense, he cannot allow that rage to color his judgment. If I could interview Mattis, I would love to probe him further on this issue, because of the highly contentious nature of U.S.-Iran relationship.
The Islamic Republic of Iran plays a special role in the gallery of most-hated countries inside the U.S. political arena. Almost all knowledgeable persons of Mattis’ age and even those who are considerably younger than him love to despise Iran. The foremost reason for that stems from the hostage crisis of 1979. The United States not only never forgave Iran for that humiliation, but every U.S. President since Jimmy Carter took a variety of actions to weaken the Islamic Republic, and even to bring about regime change. Iran, on its part, was alleged to have taken equally stern actions whose purpose was to cause death and grave injury on the U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in West Asia and the Levant. In the 21st Century, Iran remains the last defiant nation challenging the U.S. dominance of the Middle East.
At the same time, United States, quite unwittingly, altered the strategic balance for Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, when it invaded those two countries. Consequently, in the post-Saddam era, Iran’s presence and influence in Iraq is mounting steadily. Comparatively speaking, however, in Afghanistan, the strategic balance does not favor Iran that much, especially because of Taliban’s capabilities to destabilize the U.S.-built order is on the rise, and the United States appeared to look for a way to bring to end its military presence there.
The U.S.-Iran relations in Iraq appear quite intricate in the context of Washington’s resolve to destroy ISIS. They both envisage ISIS as the common enemy in the Syrian theater of operation; however, Iran has cast its lot for the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The United States, while still wishes to see the demise of Assad, has largely remained focused on destroying ISIS from Syria. From a strategic point of view, Iran remains a state that is relentlessly maneuvering to remain a significant actor in the entire Middle East. This is a goal that has remained one of the main sources of conflict between Tehran and Washington.
These developments have considerably complicated the U.S.-Iran ties, and Mattis’ conventional loathing of Iran has to take them into consideration.
Given the fact that Mattis values information and the endless process of self-education and self-improvement, let us hope that he would consider the fact that Iran, like all nations, is only promoting its strategic interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. In this capacity, it is very much open to the prospects of negotiations and rapprochement with the lone superpower. The question now is whether the incoming Trump administration would recognize that face, and adhere to the intricate process of taking all measures avoiding future wars. At least President-elect Trump has promised to avoid the option of regime change during his presidency. This will be Mattis’ chance to prove that he will also become an important player in that regard.