Mattis won't attack Trump in book 'Call Sign Chaos,' but you might want to go easy on him
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis did a lot to temper the president. Attacking him in this instance may not be the right move.
Remarkably, after the release of pre-publication copies of his new book on leadership and the importance of teamwork and allies in American defense policy, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is being criticized in many political and policy quarters. In a recent Washington Post article, for example, four of five independent experts accused him of one form of political misstep or another.
According to these experts, and the overall theme of the article, he was either too easy on President Donald Trump in his book, too enabling of Trump when secretary of Defense or too confused in his identity as both a former Cabinet official and a former general — not understanding his correct role in today's American political and policy discourse.
Such criticisms are misguided. To be sure, Mattis' specific ideas and actions can and should be scrutinized and debated. But there should be no doubt, among Democrats or Republicans, about the quality of the leadership he provided this country in recent times, nor about the importance and timeliness of his new book's message.
How Mattis served his country
To refresh memories, here is in brief the recent history of Mattis' service to the country, after a long career in the U.S. Marine Corps. Donald Trump was elected president with no help or support from then-retired Gen. Jim Mattis, who had taken off his uniform and his four stars for the last time in 2013. Thanks to the recommendations of a number of associates and advisers to Trump, the two were put in touch, and Mattis agreed to an interview. Trump respected Mattis' combination of toughness, smarts, charisma and éminence grise, so the president elect offered him the job of the Pentagon's highest civilian job.
Many of us still reeling from the election of a real estate tycoon with no political experience and a bombastic personality to the most powerful job in the world, with the nuclear button always within almost as easy reach of his hand as his Twitter account, were relieved and encouraged that someone with such a steady and sober worldview would be Trump's top Defense official.
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For the next two years, Mattis helped persuade Trump not to abandon allies, not to pull precipitously out of difficult military operations abroad just because they were messy and unappealing, and not to go to war in places like the Korean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, he steered the Pentagon toward a more clear and intense focus on military competition with, and deterrence of, Russia and China — building on ideas that began to develop in the latter Obama years, but taking them to a new level and persuading Trump as well as the Congress to fund them generously.
Last December, Mattis resigned on principle because President Trump showed little regard for America's broader national security interests or its allies when announcing a quick departure from Syria and a rapid drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. Thankfully, even though Trump fired the secretary, he also seemed to listen. American forces are still in Syria, and we are still negotiating an Afghanistan drawdown. Mattis' influence might have been weakening in the latter months he held the job, but he was never easy to ignore, and Trump actually heeded much of his advice even as their relationship soured.
Now, Mattis has published a book in which he strongly defended the importance of alliances. But he avoided making the story too much about Trump — expressing his arguments in more elliptical and indirect terms, so as to try to keep the debate about substance rather than personality or politics.
Mattis deserves respect for his wisdom in the White House
To my mind, Mattis got it right on every major decision. He was right and noble to take the secretary of Defense job. The country's security interests benefited from his hand, rather than the possibility of a sycophantic political crony or partisan hothead, being on the tiller of the Department of Defense. He was right on the vast preponderance of policy ideas he promoted when in that job. Largely as a result, despite the tweets, insults and temptations, Trump did not follow through on the most abrupt of his instincts. With his larger-than-life personality, Mattis (also known as "Mad Dog," "Chaos" and the "Warrior Monk") was hard to ignore.
Secretary Mattis was on understandable ground in finally crying uncle and resigning when the stresses of the job became too much and his influence started to wane — even if personally I wish he had held on a bit longer (though Mark Esper is a solid successor who is off to a good start this summer).
USA TODAY Editorial Board:James Mattis promotes a book that's silent about Donald Trump. It's a disservice.
Finally, Mattis was right not simply to fade away from the Washington debate but to write a book that in the most substantive terms possible tried to steer America's national security debate in a certain direction as a crucial president election looms. Wisely, he did so with some subtlety and restraint and minimal mention of President Trump by name — lest the discussion quickly descend into a political food fight. That doing so may engender some excessive criticism from people who should know better is a small price to pay for the good of the country.
Thank you, Jim Mattis.