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Mattis Shouldn’t Steer Trump’s Foreign Policy Ship

In a presidential administration veritably stuffed with characters, retired four-star General James Mattis, who serves as Secretary of Defense, remains one of the most studied though least understood personalities. An original member of the “Axis of Adults” tasked with moderating the impulsive behavior of President Trump and the more scurrilous members of his staff, Mattis has seen his seen his own fortunes in the media rise as those of other cabinet officials have fallen. Nevertheless, for every former colleague or pundit praising Mattis, there are two more who are deeply frightened that observers still pin their hopes of policy sanity on a noted foreign policy hawk with dangerously bellicose views.

Image courtesy of Air Force Tech Sgt. Brigitte Brantley, © 2017.

The contrasting, indeed competing, opinions of Mattis swirling around Washington, D.C., raised the stakes substantially for Dexter Filkins’ recent lengthy profile of Mattis in the New Yorker, one of the first articles to include Mattis’ own sentiments on his brief tenure as Secretary of Defense. Filkins, one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching chroniclers of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, unfortunately provides a less than penetrating analysis of his subject, raising more questions than answers about the direction that Mattis will steer the Department of Defense, to say nothing of the country, in the years ahead.

The major flaw with Filkins’ profile is his failure to interrogate Mattis’ direct responsibility for faulty operational decisions made in the early stages of the invasion of Iraq. As commander of the 1st Marine Division, Mattis decided to bypass population centers and not secure territory in favor of pursuing a quick end to hostilities. As Filkins quotes Mattis, “The sooner we get [the invasion] over with the better. Our overriding principle will be speed, speed, speed.”

The unforeseen consequences of a speedy invasion, however, would become immediately apparent in the following weeks. Chaos spread across Iraq amidst the power vacuum provided by an insufficient number of U.S. ground troops and the misguided decision to disband the Iraqi Army. Curiously, Filkins offhandedly dismisses the notion that either Mattis or now Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who served as Mattis’ assistant Division commander, bear any responsibility for the decision to either emphasize speed or eschew population security. Filkins notes that “in Mattis’ view, the initial mistake of invading was compounded by bad decisions that followed,” including the decision to demobilize the Iraqi Army. He therefore backhandedly places Mattis on the right side of history regarding the Iraq War and offloads blame for the forthcoming Iraqi insurgency on others.

Even if there is a kernel of truth to Filkins’ characterization of Mattis’ views at the time of the invasion, his willingness to buy into the myth that politicians sold the U.S. military down the river in planning and executing the Iraq War smacks far more of apologism than a penetrating search for answers. This modern-day version of the post-World War I Dolchstoßlegende, or “stabbed-in the back” myth propagated by the German military, is not just sloppy policy analysis, it is profoundly disingenuous.

Indeed, in Filkins’ telling Mattis comes across as clear-eyed critic of U.S. military adventurism, bemoaning “that there was no ‘end state’” in Iraq and Afghanistan, “the United States never knew exactly what it was fighting for.” More generally, Filkins states that Mattis believes “military force…works only when it’s part of a broader political strategy.” This depiction is laughable given Mattis’ well-known hawkish views on Iran, a situation for which there is no clear military solution, but where Mattis has consistently urged a more bellicose U.S. stance.

There is perhaps no better juxtaposition for Filkins’ ultimately fawning and hagiographic depiction of Mattis than the thinly veiled and biting satire of one of his contemporaries, General Stanley McChrystal, in the recently released Netflix movie War Machine. Starring Brad Pitt in the role of General Glen McMahon, a barely concealed caricature of McChrystal, the film couches a cutting indictment of U.S.-led counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan in the guise of a comedy. Namely, the pseudo-intellectualism of Pitt’s posturing, scowling lead, whose hand is “bent into a permanent claw, like it was still clutching a World War II cigar” is not only mercilessly mocked, but revealed for the farce that it is.

In a telling scene, a German politician tentatively raises her hand as McMahon lectures on counter-insurgency doctrine to question the logic behind the U.S. approach. She notes that the United States invaded Afghanistan as a response to the September 11th attacks, and yet instead of focusing on a counterterrorism mission, the U.S. led occupation force was now “spread across the entirety of the country…fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village.” She cogently observes that “General, you must know, [that] is a war you will never win.”

McMahon is left spluttering platitudes about the universal desire for jobs and freedom, both economic and ideological, leading to key final riposte. The politician concludes by acknowledging that she believes McMahon is a “good man” but that she doesn’t ascribe to his “belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe.” Rather, she further questions the belief McMahon has “in the power of [his] ideals” and indeed his “sense of self.” As a fictionalized set-piece, the scene is a bit on the nose, but as an indictment of the hubris with which the United States sought to reshape Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unshakeable belief that those tasked with this transformation had in themselves, it remains spot on.

Both the political establishment of the United States and the country more broadly have yet to fully come to terms with the failed U.S.-led exercises in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor have those who bear responsibility for the decisions made in these efforts been held accountable for them. The fact of the matter is that Mattis, and the entire generation of military leaders he represents, have never been fully held to task for their role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, that Mattis, Kelly, and others, such as H.R. McMaster (current U.S. National Security Advisor), have been rewarded with higher government posts is the sad result of eager motivated reasoning to forget the history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Filkins’ portrayal is accurate, and Mattis’ self-reflection upon the U.S. military’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan has yielded only the conclusion that he himself is not to blame, it would appear clear that the hubris which helped lead the United States astray in these conflicts in the first place is alive and well in the Pentagon. Unchecked ambition and undeserved confidence in one’s own abilities invariably breed policy disaster. Therefore, even if the course of the Trump administration’s foreign policy may be diametrically opposed from that of its predecessors, the counsel of Mattis and others like him will more likely lead to catastrophe than success.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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