Thinking About General James Mattis’ Presidential Prospects
Ehsan M. Ahrari
It is not a secret that the Republican Party is not happy with its two top presidential contenders: real estate developer Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. While party leaders have decided to side with the lesser of two evils—Ted Cruz—the search for an electable candidate is still on.
Several weeks ago, the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, released a trial balloon, by stating that he was considering throwing his hat in the presidential ring; but he found no enthusiastic reception by the mainline Republican leadership for his aspiration. However, the search for a winnable Republican candidate is on.
Now we hear about the growing pressure on retired four-star General James Mattis to run for office. Thus far, he has not expressed any interest, but that can change. General Mattis, even though a man of impeccable military record, is controversial for his past blunt statements. His troops used to call him “Mad Dog Mattis.” Like most successful generals, he also is known for his salty (and even arrogant) statements describing his professional side. Consider the following:
- “I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word.” (San Diego Union Tribune)
- “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.” (San Diego Union Tribune)
- “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.” (CNN)
- “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” (Defense News)
Mattis is currently serving as a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. My personal contact with him was several years ago, when we were both guest speakers at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany. Of course, as a general, he was given a different reception than I, but I did have the occasion of having lunch with him.
We started discussing the then ongoing Iraq war. I wish I could remember what I told him; but, he pulled out a notebook and started writing something while I spoke. Then he looked up and said with a smile. “See, Professor, I not only listen but also take notes.” Needless to say, I was honored, but did not ask him what he wrote down. That was the extent of my meeting with him. But it left a good impression on me.
I found him to be an engaging conversationalist and a good listener—two traits most successful persons should have, but don’t. He has had a brilliant military career. However, I wonder whether he would make a good president. Becoming President is a lot more intricate and convoluted than fighting a war. Becoming an effective president, like everything intricate in life, is a topic of conversation for all watchers of American politics. However, no one—unless he/she sits inside the Oval Office for only a few days—has any clue how different the world looks as an occupant of the White House. As far as I know, only seven generals had the opportunity to become president—George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower. Only Washington is regarded a great president by presidential scholars. Ulysses Grant was listed as a “failed” president. In a 2014 essay published by The Washington Post, the most well-known modern president, Dwight Eisenhower, was ranked as the seventh greatest president overall.
In my estimation, the two greatest American presidents were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The former was great because he saved the Republic from becoming two nations; the latter, because he was the fountainhead of America’s emergence as a global economic power and as a superpower. (Incidentally, the aforementioned ranking listed Lincoln as the greatest and Roosevelt as the third greatest president). The American presidency and the world has come a long way since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.
Even in 2016, while the United States’ global sphere of influence has palpably shrunk, it still remains the lone superpower. However, the perception in other regions of the world favors the People’s Republic of China as the future superpower or a power that has already reached that status (see the table below). Even though Russia is desperately trying to become a superpower, it was aptly described by The Economist as “a hollow superpower.”
Even as a declining superpower, the United States’ role as a global problem-solver remains unquestioned.
So, even if one were to accept the contentious proposition that America is a declining superpower, the fact remains that even in that alleged decline, America’s prestige remains high the world over. And, even though under President Barack Obama, the brunt of his foreign policy has been aimed at “not doing stupid stuff,” his successor not only must remember that fact, but he/she needs to conduct his/her foreign policy accordingly. That kind of restraint in the exercise of power would be very hard to implement by a retired general officer, especially a Marine.
I wonder, whether a Marine General, whose professional training has been to remain proactive, proactive, and proactive, would even give mild consideration to the proposition of “not doing stupid stuff,” if he becomes a serious presidential contender, and especially if he is elected President.