Jim Mattis outside the Pentagon. Credit Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
Can Jim Mattis Hold the Line in Trump’s ‘War Cabinet’?
Dismissed as a warmonger during the Obama presidency, the defense secretary may be the only reliable voice of caution left in an administration inching closer to the brink.
By ROBERT F. WORTH MARCH 26, 2018
One morning in mid-November, while answering routine press questions about aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula and de-confliction zones in Syria, Jim Mattis quietly hinted at something far more important. The United States would not be withdrawing its forces from Syria after the anticipated defeat of ISIS, as President Trump had been promising since his inauguration. Instead, the defense secretary suggested that American forces not only would remain but could even expand their role. “We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” Mattis said. “You need to do something about this mess now. Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”
In a quieter time, Mattis’s comments might have made headlines: Here was a potential shift in America’s tortured efforts to manage the Middle East, and one that was bound to ignite conflict with Turkey, a NATO member and ally. In late December, Mattis offered more details at another briefing, saying that America was moving from a purely offensive role in Syria to a “stabilizing” one. He spoke of sending more diplomats and contractors, reopening schools, bolstering public health — a plan that would grow to include deploying new border forces and promoting economic renewal, all with a view toward helping Syrians topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Although the number of United States boots on the ground would remain small, for now, the goals were ambitious and a little gauzy, and sounded an awful lot like the “nation building” that Trump had so often derided during his presidential campaign.
Yet the decision to stay on in Syria passed almost unnoticed between the strobe-flashes of Trump administration scandal. The president signed off on the plan just before Christmas (to the generals’ great relief), during a meeting in the White House Situation Room. It would not become official until mid-January, when the man ostensibly responsible for American foreign policy, Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, gave his endorsement in a speech in California. But it was decided months earlier under Mattis’s supervision, with the help of the elite Special Operations forces who have led the battle against ISIS in Syria. Once again, Trump had reluctantly deferred to the national security establishment, just as he did on a larger scale with Afghanistan last summer.
A year into Trump’s tenure, Mattis has become a quietly central figure in an administration of near-constant purges. He may be the lone cabinet member to have survived with his status and dignity intact, and in the process his Pentagon — perhaps the one national institution that is still fully functional — has inherited an unusually powerful role in the shaping of American foreign policy. The removal of Tillerson and the national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, has further reduced the core of the group once known as the “committee to save America,” underscoring Mattis’s unique position and putting even more weight on his relationship with the president. Although their conversations are a tightly guarded secret, Trump is said to consult Mattis regularly about a wide range of subjects. “I think the president calls him for a gut check on all these things,” I was told by an executive who knows Trump well. “He doesn’t do whatever Mattis says, but he does defer to him.” Mattis seems to possess a unique ability to steer Trump without drawing his wrath. He has deftly deflected some of Trump’s rulings (on transgender soldiers in the military, for instance). Sometimes he issues veiled criticisms; at other times, it’s his silence that sends a message, as when he refused to join cabinet members defending Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris agreement in June or when he refused to join the chorus of sycophantic tributes by other cabinet members shortly afterward. (“We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda” was the offering of the former chief of staff, Reince Priebus.)
Mattis’s unusual standing in the administration — “He’s more than a secretary of defense,” one veteran diplomat told me — has put him in a paradoxical position. His boss, infatuated with raw military power, packed his administration with retired and active generals. But Mattis himself is visibly uneasy about being thrust into a political role. Relying on the reputation of generals to win over Congress or the public “sets up military leaders as the guarantors of public support, something that should be anathema to the longstanding balance of civil-military roles in America,” Mattis and a colleague wrote in an essay published in 2016.
One of his most frequent talking points, in speeches and off-the-cuff press appearances, is the need to match military strength with more soft power and diplomacy. Mattis seems acutely aware that he has inherited an office whose powers have been steadily expanding for years. The growth of the national security colossus since 9/11 has transformed America’s relations with the rest of the world, overshadowing the State Department and other civilian agencies. As the Pentagon embraced counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department withdrew behind bunkers and blast walls, ceding much of its role to men and women in uniform. In 2008, Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, began warning about the “creeping militarization of some aspects of America’s foreign policy,” with the State Department withering and the Pentagon steadily expanding.