Small Wars Journal

Can Jim Mattis Hold the Line in Trump's 'War Cabinet?'

Can Jim Mattis Hold the Line in Trump's 'War Cabinet?' By Robert F. Worth – New York Times Magazine

Dismissed as a warmonger during the Obama presidency, the defense secretary may be the only reliable voice of caution left in an administration inching closer to the brink.

… A year into Trump’s tenure, Mattis has become a quietly central figure in an administration of near-constant purges. He may be the lone Cabinet member to have survived with his status and dignity intact, and in the process his Pentagon — perhaps the one national institution that is still fully functional — has inherited an unusually powerful role in the shaping of American foreign policy. The removal of Tillerson and the national-security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, has further reduced the core of the group once known as the “committee to save America,” underscoring Mattis’s unique position and putting even more weight on his relationship with the president. Although their conversations are a tightly guarded secret, Trump is said to consult Mattis regularly about a wide range of subjects. “I think the president calls him for a gut check on all these things,” I was told by an executive who knows Trump well. “He doesn’t do whatever Mattis says, but he does defer to him.” Mattis seems to possess a unique ability to steer Trump without drawing his wrath. He has deftly deflected some of Trump’s rulings (on transgender soldiers in the military, for instance). Sometimes he issues veiled criticisms; at other times, it’s his silence that sends a message, as when he refused to join cabinet members defending Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris agreement in June or when he refused to join the chorus of sycophantic tributes by other cabinet members shortly afterward. (“We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda” was the offering of the former chief of staff, Reince Priebus.)

Mattis’s unusual standing in the administration — “He’s more than a secretary of defense,” one veteran diplomat told me — has put him in a paradoxical position. His boss, infatuated with raw military power, packed his administration with retired and active generals. But Mattis himself is visibly uneasy about being thrust into a political role. Relying on the reputation of generals to win over Congress or the public “sets up military leaders as the guarantors of public support, something that should be anathema to the longstanding balance of civil-military roles in America,” Mattis and a colleague wrote in an essay published in 2016…

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