The year-end foreign policy analyses that routinely rank the threats America faces are unique in 2016. An unexpected U.S. President-elect creates a host of unanswerable questions. Each analysis is incomplete unless it mentions the “uncharted waters” in which we find ourselves, or how “we simply don’t know” what President-elect Trump’s unique approach, his lack of political experience, and his penchant for improvisation will yield in the foreign policy arena.
America’s foreign policy leaders are used to mapping out the looming uncertainties America faces. They are less accustomed to an environment where, in many ways, America’s incoming leader is that looming uncertainty.
The standard scrutiny of a president-elect’s nominations is sharper for President-elect Trump. Two of his top nominations in the foreign policy arena—National Security Advisor-designate Gen. Michael Flynn and attorney David Friedman to be Ambassador to Israel—have bred new worries with their controversial views. Flynn has endorsed suspicion of Muslims; Friedman would upend any effort at a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
In this atmosphere, President-elect Trump’s nomination of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, formerly Commander of U.S. Central Command, to be secretary of defense, is critical. Secretaries of defense, of course, always are. However, serving a president-elect with no military or political background, Gen. Mattis’ own outlook and temperament will likely be scrutinized at his confirmation hearing, and they are of interest to those anticipating what changes to expect in U.S. military policy.
Mattis is on record criticizing President Obama’s Syria policy. Obama’s reticence to commit ground forces after the turmoil of the Iraq War is interpreted alternately as prudent caution based on U.S. experience in Iraq, or as a lack of American leadership and assertiveness. Mattis believes the latter. Trump has praised him as “a general’s general”, compared him favorably to Gen. Patton, and sees him as the point person for a muscular U.S. foreign policy. Does Gen. Mattis’ own rhetoric fit Trump’s casting call?
Reviewing two of Gen. Mattis’ major public statements over the past two years—testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 and an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April 2016—reveals four key ways in which Mattis’ outlook differs from Trump’s.
1) Mattis talks about strategy. One predominant fear about President-elect Trump is his impulsiveness and unwillingness to discuss strategy. Pressed by NBC’s Matt Lauer during a televised candidate’s forum, Trump refused to articulate any elements of the plan to defeat ISIS he claimed to have formulated. During the campaign, Trump expressed a willingness—to some, an eagerness—to “bomb the hell out of ISIS.”
By contrast, Mattis’s Senate testimony centered on strategy. He addressed the fitness of the U.S. intelligence community to respond to emerging threats, including cyber, at a time when President-elect Trump has been dismissive of intelligence institutions. He identified the national debt as perhaps the biggest security threat facing the U.S., after the debt was absent as a presidential campaign topic. Writing in the New York Times, author Thomas Ricks described Mattis as “far more disciplined than Patten was, and a far more strategic thinker.”
2) Mattis talks about international institutions. Trump made campaign headlines undermining international institutions and alliance relationships. He criticized America’s role in NATO, and accused long-term U.S. allies like South Korea of ‘free-riding’ on America’s protection. Mattis’ rhetoric (again, prior to his nomination) contradicted Trump directly.
Mattis began his 2015 Senate testimony addressing the UN, NATO, and the Bretton Woods institutions as “elements we take for granted.” The post-World War II international order, Mattis argued, “reflected the wisdom of those who recognized no nation lived as an island and we needed new ways to deal with challenges that for better or worse impacted all nations.” This is a clear rebuttal of the “America First” rhetoric of Trump’s campaign. Mattis’ contradiction of Trump’s rhetoric on U.S. allies was equally direct. “I would just say that for a sitting president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts”, Mattis said at CSIS. This direct pushback suggests Mattis might work to preserve and enhance America’s relationships abroad.
3) Mattis talks about Congress’ foreign policy leadership. Fears that President-elect Trump will be “trigger happy” are founded in the fact that military power has concentrated in the presidency under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Tellingly, Mattis spoke about the need for Congress to reassert its role in crafting and overseeing U.S. foreign policy. In particular, he challenged Congress to expand the range of U.S. options to confront an aggressive Iran. In his Senate testimony, Mattis said: “When the decision is made to employ our forces in combat, Congress should ask if the military is being employed with the proper authority.” As he re-enters the Pentagon, Mattis will be reminded of this view, and his inclusion of Congress in constructing foreign policy as a check on an over-active executive is now timelier than ever.
4) Mattis talks about nuclear proliferation. Trump has also raised alarms with statements that seem to welcome nuclear arms races in Asia and the Middle East. On this point, Mattis’ experience will be key. Again before the Armed Services Committee, Mattis asserted that the nuclear deterrent must be maintained. However—and crucially—he discussed ways to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use by suggesting whether land-based nuclear missiles are in fact obsolete, and should be dismantled. In any event, he called for clarity in nuclear policy in a way that would help to curb proliferation fears instead of fostering them.
It is too low a bar to praise Mattis simply for not adopting the xenophobic and bellicose rhetoric of his colleagues. However, his outlook towards engaging the Islamic world appears to be based on America’s Cold War-approach to the citizens of communist countries. “I too think Radio Farsi has to be dusted off and we need to get back at it,” Mattis said at CSIS. “The Iranian people need to know right up front every day: we have no problem with you.” It is tough to imagine a more effective antidote to the Trump campaign’s indulgence in rhetoric targeting Islam.
Given his views on the Obama Administration, it is safe to assume Mattis will bring a more hawkish outlook to the Pentagon than his predecessor. However, he is steeped in an experience of foreign affairs and military command that the incoming administration otherwise lacks. That is welcome.
Taking Mattis at his word last April, change seems inevitable. “The bottom line on the American situation, though, I think is quite clear,” Mattis said at CSIS; “The next president is going to inherit a mess. That’s probably the most diplomatic word you can use for it.”