Small Wars Journal

Thinking About General James Mattis’ Presidential Prospects

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.”

Source: http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/07/14/chapter-3-balance-of-power-u-s-vs-china/

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.

Comments

J Harlan

Sun, 04/17/2016 - 12:10am

Generals have been doing "stupid stuff" since time immemorial. The west's massive technological superiority over any enemy we've fought post 1945 has made disasters like Choisin or Dien Bien Phu rare. US firepower and logistic capabilities have made a catastrophe even at the company level against Islamists highly unlikely and have covered up bad generalship. The mistakes are in such slow motion and losses at such low levels that blunders now are hardly recognizable without the use of hindsight years in the future. Exactly the same way presidential mistakes unroll. Slowly and over time.

chris_k

Fri, 04/15/2016 - 11:03am

"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."

If General/Flag Officers, as they grew up in rank within whatever service they were officers within did not continuously exercise restraint in the course of their entire career from boot officers to the senior grades, they would not have been made into General/Flag Officers.
General Mattis wouldn't just heed to that mantra but likely build on it, as he's all about doing the smart, right thing. You shouldn't need to tell him that; he's been doing that before President Obama was in office. Please name a situation where he's taken the stupid route. Of anyone, he knows that every problem is not a nail, and the hammer solution doesn't work for everything. I would take another look at his experience, training, education, and most importantly, outlook, before you start mirroring his experience to other military-background Presidents. Yes, Marines have a reputation of lacking tact. But that lack of tact is by and large made up for via results. Can you tell me about his lack of results?

Due to some of the things you've said in your article, you seemed to be biased against his military experience and grades held, or just military experience in general [no pun intended]:

"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."

And after you use his quotes taken out of context...

"Becoming President is a lot more intricate and convoluted than fighting a war."

"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."

Your words, despite your profession and specialization, aren't lending any credit towards exactly how hard it is to fight wars, hold an office, and lead scaled commands while executing foreign policy on behalf of the USG. Perhaps, just as you put, "...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", you should sit in his shoes as a commander rather than question how he'd act whilst not knowing/having the same experience, training, education, and outlook.

thedrosophil

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 5:59pm

<BLOCKQUOTE>>That kind of restraint in the exercise of power would be very hard to implement by a retired general officer, especially a Marine.<BR>

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.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I hate to be flippant here, but you're being somewhat ridiculous. You mention that in your single interaction with General Mattis, he made a point of listening and taking notes. In the end, however, you conclude that because he's a "retired general officer, especially a Marine", that he's somehow incapable of "not doing stupid stuff"? I'd recommend that you give some of the available podcasts and videos of General Mattis' public addresses from the Hoover Institution and testifying before Congress some consideration. He is absolutely capable, and is in fact a proponent, of restraint, diplomacy, and a variety of other noble inhibitions and alternate courses of action for which you seem to dismiss his capacity based solely upon what appears to be lazy stereotyping. Your conclusion ignores his actual record in its entirety, and in addition to the community here at SWJ, I suspect that General Eisenhower would have taken some issue with your sentiments back in 1952.

The Marine Corps specifically, and the military generally, aren't shy about lambasting those leaders whom they hold in contempt, and I have never heard <I>any</I> such words about General Mattis, save for a handful of former JFCOM civil servants who blame him for the disestablishment of a command that, by all rational accounts, had gotten unwieldy and stopped producing sufficient returns on the taxpayers' investment. Despite being one of the earliest JFCOM refugees, I am nonetheless dismissive of such criticism, and I personally witnessed sufficient integrity, honesty, and wisdom from General Mattis to make me quite comfortable with the prospect of his presidency.

None of this is to make the claim that he is the perfect presidential candidate, but his combined character and intelligence quite obviously exceed those of all of the remaining major candidates, save possibly for Governor Kasich. (Senator Sanders scores points for character, but his policies fail the corresponding sanity test.) Whether he allows himself to be cajoled into running or not, General Mattis has more than earned more respect than to be dismissed simply on the grounds that he is a "retired general officer, especially a Marine".