US President-elect Donald Trump announced last week that he would nominate retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be his administration’s secretary of defense.
Mattis’ 40-year career in the military has compelled some military observers to characterize him as a “legendary” figure and an “icon.” When asked about whether he would nominate Gen. Mattis for the position of defense secretary when he first met with him two weeks ago to discuss the possibility, Trump said at the time that “all I can say is he’s the real deal.”
Mattis’ career in the military included leading US combat troops in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001 and Iraq in the spring of 2003. He returned to Iraq a second time to face guerilla warfare in the city of Fallujah in 2004. He retired as the chief of US Central Command in 2013.
US federal law requires that the defense secretary be out of active military service for at least seven years. That means that the US Congress will have to issue a waiver for him to be eligible for the position. Thus far, very few Americans — inside or outside government — have expressed any concern over the nomination and its potential impact on the balance between the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon.
By most accounts Gen. Mattis, like the overwhelming majority of military officers, respects and values the division and distinction between the military brass and the civilian leadership. While Gen. Mattis’ prowess on the battlefield earned him the nickname “mad dog,” he is also considered to be a brilliant strategist and widely read and is very careful when it comes to decisions that could put his troops in harm’s way.
At the same time, Gen. Mattis has spoken candidly since retiring about some of the threats that the United States is facing around the world. It is clear that he takes the threat posed by militant groups and non-state actors like Daesh seriously. At the same time, he has also expressed concerns about North Korea, China and even Russia. However, it is in his criticism of Iran that he has spoken most directly.
Speaking at a Washington think tank — The Center for Strategic and International Studies — in April of this year, Gen. Mattis said: “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
He also expressed concern that contrary to some supporters’ expectations that the nuclear agreement would lead Tehran to moderate its policies in the region — especially its support of militant organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen — the deal seems to have emboldened Iran.
Gen. Mattis maintained that among other things, Iran has increased its attempts to smuggle weapons to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of a UN Security Council’s resolution. He also maintained that Iran continues its unconditional support of Bashar Assad in Syria, as his regime inflicts unimaginable suffering on the civilian population.
Much like most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and especially Saudi Arabia, Gen. Mattis believes that the Middle East is at an “inflection point” and sees Iran as stoking much of the violence and instability in the region. He has even maintained, “Iran is not an enemy” of Daesh and wondered why it is that Iran is the only country in the region that Daesh has not attacked, despite the professed mutual enmity between the two. At the same time, he appears to believe that Iran must be held accountable for its actions. He also appears to favor strengthening relations with traditional US allies, including the countries of the GCC.
At a time when there is a wide consensus in the GCC that the US should adopt a tougher stance on Iran’s policies in the region and assume more of a leadership role to end the myriad conflicts in the Middle East, the appointment of Gen. Mattis as secretary of defense will likely prove reassuring for many in the region and possibly beyond.
• Fahad Nazer is an International Affairs Fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill, and Newsweek, among others.