Donald Trump described his first meeting with Gen. James Mattis a week ago, “I said, what do you think of waterboarding?’ (Mattis) said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’”
“He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture,’” Trump added. “And I was very impressed by that answer.”
Trump promised during the campaign to have a strong military, to be tough on Iran and ISIS, but also to end U.S.-led regime change abroad and costly nation building. My greatest hope for the incoming administration is that Trump follows through on rehabbing America’s addiction to foreign intervention, and also that some of the President-elect’s harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric never pans out as policy. That’s a tall order, given that half of it based on my personal wishes, which are the opposite of what Trump has said.
Yet, on each front, Gen. James Mattis seems like the right man for the job of defense secretary. He’s unquestionably an Iran hawk, which is concerning, but is a soldier’s soldier who appears to think getting into wars needlessly is poor policy.
My greatest fear before the selection of Mattis was that Trump would choose neoconservative Sen. Tom Cotton who never saw a war he didn’t want the U.S. involved in. Mattis is a tough guy, but doesn’t appear to have a fetish for war.
“Mad Dog” Mattis, a nickname some of his closest friends and allies say is undeserved, has said, “I’d rather sit down and resolve the problem with our enemies, but if they refuse, I will not hesitate to go to war, act quickly, within a small window, then come home.”
That’s far preferable to what the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the opposite of what the last Republican president did, President Obama has done, and what a President Hillary Clinton could have done, with so many Republican hawks backing her candidacy over Trump’s.
In a 2014 speech stressing the need to for the U.S. to stay engaged globally, Gen. Mattis said “Engagement does not dictate expanded or even frequent use of our military instrument.” Mattis added, “It would be a false choice to say the sole options are between isolationism and more wars.”
This sounds similar to what my former boss Senator Rand Paul—a longtime Republican champion of a more prudent and restrained foreign policy—said in a speech to The Heritage Foundation in 2013, “If for example, we imagine a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time that would be one polar extreme. Likewise if we imagine a foreign policy that is nowhere any of the time and is completely disengaged from the challenges and dangers to our security that really do exist in the world – well, that would be the other polar extreme.”
“I think there is room for a foreign policy that strikes a balance,” Paul said.
But The American Conservative’s Noah Millman takes an optimistic view, “It’s fair to call (Mattis) a hawk. But it’s also fair to call someone like Jim Webb an Iran hawk — after all, he opposed the Iran deal. Heck, Rand Paul opposed the deal; so did Gary Johnson.”
“The key question is not whether Mattis sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran but whether he is going to be actively looking for ways to get into conflict with them, or, worse, advocating policies aimed at regime change,” Millman writes.
“I don’t think he is… Moreover, Mattis has been abundantly clear that the Iran deal is here to stay.”
Then there’s the specter of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, including wanting to ban Islamic worshippers from the U.S. and to register Muslim American citizens. But Slate notes that Mattis’ presence in Trump’s cabinet is actually a comfort, due to the general’s well-documented aversion to anti-Muslim racism among his soldiers. “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon,” General Mattis told his Marines in 2003.
All of this could be wishful thinking. We don’t know what President Trump will do or what his advisers and cabinet members will suggest to him. Trump’s Secretary of State pick is still the most crucial.
But in choosing Gen. James Mattis, Donald Trump could have done much worse.