Michael Swartz / August 30, 2019

Mattis Says ‘We’re Better Than Our Current Politics’

The retired Marine general and former defense secretary challenges Trump’s methods.

It’s a phenomenon that seems to come with every Republican president: A former administration official writes a critical book that gets lapped up by an adoring press. (Try naming a similar book from the Barack Obama era.) Former Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis is the latest such author, having penned a lengthy Wall Street Journal op-ed adapted from Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, which hits the shelves on Sept. 3.

“Mad Dog,” as you may recall, served less than two years in the Trump administration, and while the official word was that his departure was pre-planned, it came when President Donald Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from Syria, a move Mattis opposed.

In the op-ed, which Mattis framed as “Duty, Democracy, and the Threat of Tribalism,” he outlined a leadership trait he apparently felt was lacking in the current administration. “In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team,” he argued. “The two qualities I was taught to value most were initiative and aggressiveness. Institutions get the behaviors they reward.” He went on to relate the story of a former colleague whose leadership style he considered “harsh and inconsiderate,” leaving little doubt as to why he brought up that particular anecdote.

Predictably, the various shades of NeverTrump harrumphed in unison.

Hot Air’s Allahpundit, who reluctantly but eventually climbed onto the Trump bandwagon, speculated that the Mattis tome was an initial step in creating a “coalition of former Trump advisors speaking out about the risks of a second term for POTUS,” while the more strident Quin Hillyer, writing at the Washington Examiner, called the Mattis piece an effective shot across Trump’s bow. “Jim Mattis was one of the most effective generals and defense secretaries in U.S. history,” argued Hillyer. “For him to be writing instead of leading is a sign of an inept, unstable presidency.”

Yet the case can also be made that the op-ed was simply about selling books. After all, taking a swipe at a sitting Republican president is a tried-and-true tactic.

And there’s also the idea about conventional wisdom being turned on its head — a Donald Trump specialty. In his op-ed, Mattis notes that he’d served as an executive secretary to two former defense secretaries appointed by President Bill Clinton: William Perry and William Cohen. While political party didn’t play an important role in this apprenticeship — Perry was a Democrat and Cohen was a moderate Republican during his lengthy service in Congress — Mattis’s own long military career may have entrenched him as part of the status quo that’s been the largest pocket of resistance for President Trump. Case in point: When Mattis resigned, longtime Republican consultant and rabid NeverTrumper Rick Wilson noted:

Jim Mattis was a talisman for the Washington and international foreign-policy communities, a point of smarts and stability, a ground-wire to short out Trump’s capricious impulses before they could damage America’s interests and values. While never straying from the chain of command, Mattis knew how to work the process, fight back behind closed doors, and maintain relationships with allies and friends around the world.

In other words, this was a clear clash of philosophies. This was The Swamp (albeit one of its best parts) versus the man who pledged to drain it.

In his op-ed, Mattis makes a good point about our heated political climate, but he doesn’t seem to understand his small part in creating it from his perch in the Pentagon. Indeed, here we have a case where the truth of the matter likely lies someplace between Trump’s brashness and the bluntness of the man whose call sign indeed was “Chaos.” Trump may have made a mistake by pulling out of Syria too soon, but it was a campaign promise kept and it hasn’t been quite the disaster that prematurely pulling out of Iraq was. On the other hand, has Mattis cooled things down with this op-ed (which may or may not reflect the theme of his book), or has he merely fanned the flames?

It’s intriguing that the man who now warns us of a “threat of tribalism” once exhorted his men to “fight with a happy heart and a strong spirit.” Think about it. A man who embodies these very attributes now resides in the Oval Office.

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