Cry havoc, and let slip the Mad Dog of the Marine Corps. That would be General James N. “Mad Dog” Mattis, USMC (ret.), selected by President-elect Donald Trump to take over the Defense Department—and, one hopes, to herald a profound change in America’s national security policies.
The nation has been at war for 15 years now, the last eight half-heartedly and with no appetite even for identifying the enemy, let alone engaging him aggressively. History will judge whether that’s the correct way for a great power to prosecute necessary conflicts in a complex and dangerous world, but for the short term, it’s clear that the Obama administration has produced a sanguinary shambles.
The Mideast boils. Russia, pushed out of the region by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger more than 40 years ago, has returned and is ascendant. Afghanistan is in stalemate. Pakistan teeters. Half a world away, America is in retreat and, recognizing this, the president of the Philippines travels to China to cast his nation’s lot with Beijing, while Japan and South Korea silently wonder about American leadership.
So, too, does the nation’s hard-pressed military. It has performed brilliantly since the Twin Towers came down 15 years ago. But it has been depleted, if not exhausted, by budgetary sequestration, personnel reductions, and matériel shortfalls—and sorely vexed by wrongheaded, top-down social-justice activism.
Enter Mattis, a Marine Corps legend who was a little too tough on Iran for the outgoing administration’s tastes—hence his premature retirement—but who is now the president-elect’s pick to set things right at the Pentagon. Expect no miracles, of course. A single presidential appointment, however wise, can never be enough. Trump clearly is on the right track with Mattis, but strategic understanding, policy coherence, and depth of commitment are what determine ultimate outcomes—and for the most part, those assets are anchored in the White House. President-elect Trump, to put it mildly, remains untested.
But there seems little doubt that Mattis himself is up to the challenge. His 40-year-plus Marine Corps career stands out even when measured against a 241-year tradition that embraces uncommon courage, personal honor, and a mortal commitment to battlefield success, never mind the odds. Outside the Marines, Mattis is known for a trenchant wit: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” It’s about as acute a prescription for survival on a modern battleground as is likely to be found anywhere, even if it did trigger some nervous tics in Washington—and help inspire his colorful nickname.
But, tactical aphorisms aside, Mattis is seen within the corps—indeed, within America’s military establishment generally—as a deep strategic thinker with the courage to state his views and then stand by them. Troubled early on by the Obama administration’s appeasement of Iran, he said so—respectfully but forcefully. It was an expression of character that cost him his career.
Now he is on the verge of a new one, and that troubles some observers: Is there properly a place for a former general at the top of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership? America’s long tradition of civilian control of the military is not lightly to be cast aside—and, in any event, Mattis cannot take the job without a congressional waiver of a well-considered law restricting such transitions.
But repairing the post-Obama Pentagon demands unconventional measures. Mattis’s character certainly commends him now—along with demonstrated clarity of thought, deep-seated patriotism, profound understanding of the security challenges now facing America, and the experience to set things right. Mad Dog Mattis fills the bill, and Donald Trump is to be commended for selecting him.
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