Travelling with James Mattis, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense

Steve Coll, after reviewing his notes taken during a trip accompanying General James Mattis on a seven-country tour in 2011, writes: It is common to observe, based on congressional testimony and other public comments he has made, that Mattis has taken a hard line toward Iran, particularly the activities of the Revolutionary Guards and other allied or expeditionary Iranian militant units in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. During our discussions, Mattis made a few comments along those lines. But mainly he seemed focussed on deepening America’s long-standing military and political alliances with Sunni Arab states — Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. During his time at Central Command, he spent many hours talking to counterparts in those countries, which tend to view Shia revolutionary Iran as a serious threat. The smaller, militarily weaker Sunni states closest to Iran — such as the U.A.E. — were and remain acutely anxious that the United States might sell out their security in some Nixon-to-China grand bargain with Tehran.

I had the sense that, in Obama’s cabinet, Mattis channelled those Sunni Arab anxieties forcefully, but I never heard him itching for another Middle Eastern war or talking up the benefits of bombing Iran preëmptively. Over all, the Mattis in my notes seemed intently focussed on stability, wary of warfare that sought to promote democracy or idealism, sentimental about the independence of the Baltic states, firmly committed to NATO, and unsentimental about Russia. During our stay in Estonia, he spoke publicly at a think-tank conference and made plain his commitment to the Baltic states’ membership in NATO and the obligation to defend them from Russian aggression. He was particularly emotional about the role Estonian soldiers had played as NATO members in Afghanistan and the sacrifices in lives they had made there.

Mattis made a few remarks about the Pentagon and its role in American foreign policy that it seems fair to quote five years later, given the stakes associated with his nomination by Trump. During our travels, the Arab Spring was already turning toward civil unrest or outright war in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Mattis was clearly inclined to reinforce some of the incumbent regimes, for the sake of regional stability.

“It’s a lot easier to stay idealistic if you don’t sign two to five next-of-kin letters every day,” he told me, referring to the condolence letters he sent to the families of American soldiers then dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I don’t think the U.S. military is conservative. It’s pragmatic.” At the same time, he said that he had “no problem” telling authoritarian leaders to allow domestic political protest to evolve peacefully. He recalled that he had advised an Egyptian counterpart about the unrest in Cairo, “At Kent State, we shot our own people, and it didn’t work out very well.” [Continue reading…]

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