Mattis Charting Reassuring Course, Separate From Trump

News of the first few days of the Trump administration at the White House describes backbiting, internal feuds, lots of tv watching and a mishmash of planned controversial policy proposals and initiatives tweeted out impulsively. On the campaign trail and now in the West Wing, President Donald Trump is rattling foreign allies and large sections of the American public.

Meanwhile, across the river at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis is charting a different course. His call sign might have been “Chaos,” but his early days at the Defense Department have been marked by anything but disorder. Instead, he appears to be going out of his way, in big ways and small, to reassure foreign partners and domestic audiences that he’s different from Trump — on style and substance.

After winning the election, for example, there was no rhyme or reason to the order of congratulatory phone calls Trump took from foreign leaders. The process was chaotic, and there was no prioritization for countries with longstanding ties or strategic importance to the US. For example, leaders from Ireland, Turkey and Egypt, among many others, spoke to Trump before British Prime Minister Theresa May could reach him.

Compare that to Mattis, who spoke to the defense ministers from Canada and the United Kingdom on his first full work day at the Pentagon. He also spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Jan. 23. According to the readout provided by the Defense Department, Mattis “wanted to place the call on his first full day in office to reinforce the importance he places on the alliance.” 

On Tuesday, Mattis spoke with the defense ministers of Australia and New Zealand, both members of the US-led coalition against ISIS, and countries who sent troops to fight in Afghanistan as well. The countries are also part of a collective security agreement with the US that dates back to 1951. 

In addition to questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO (and praising Russian President Vladimir Putin), Trump has also criticized historic defense agreements the US has with Japan and South Korea. He has described the agreements as one-sided (similar to his critique of the NATO alliance), and has said Japan and Korea need to pay more or they shouldn’t count on U.S. protection.

In sharp contrast, Mattis is making his first trip overseas to Japan and South Korea. According to the press release, the “trip will underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation.”

Those are his messages to U.S. allies, but Mattis also seems to be setting himself apart from the president in more subtle ways. And these messages are directed more at the U.S. military, which he now oversees, and the American people.

After Trump repeatedly disparaged the intelligence community on Twitter, Mattis voiced his strong support for it. In his short message to the Defense Department on Saturday, he said “Together with the Intelligence Community we are the sentinels and guardians of our nation.” He also noted that DoD would, “work with the State Department to strengthen our alliances.”

Mattis has also quietly set the record straight on his preferred nickname. On Monday, the Defense Department put out a news story on Mattis, titled, “10 Things to Know About New DoD Secretary James Mattis.” At the bottom of the list it said, “Mattis is nicknamed ‘the Warrior Monk,’ due to his intense love and study of military history, leadership and the art of war.”

This may come as news to Trump who likes to introduce Mattis as “Mad Dog,” and has played the name up to his crowds on numerous occasions, as it evokes an aggressive military man in the style of Gen. George Patton.

The Defense Department distanced itself further from Trump on Wednesday when it tweeted a story about a U.S. Marine who was born in Baghdad and came to the US when he was 16-years old as a refugee. “Despite the challenges Mohammed faced, he graduated from high school less than five years after coming to the United States,” the story reads. Today, Cpl. Ali Mohammed is working as a translator in Iraq with Marines who are helping Iraqi forces fight the Islamic State.

The tweet went out the same day news broke that Trump would be signing a series of executive orders that would clamp down on immigration, specifically barring refugees from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries, among other restrictions. The tweet also came after other government Twitter accounts, including the National Park Service, were temporarily shut down after tweeting about attendance at Trump’s inauguration and statistics on climate change.

Mattis also shared his own family’s immigrant history at his confirmation hearing, telling the story of his mother who came to the US as an infant and worked at the Pentagon during World War Two in military intelligence.

On Wednesday, Mattis publicly addressed the department for the first time in remarks prepared for the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was on Jan. 16). Nothing he said openly refuted Trump, but its unifying message struck a very different note than anything the president has said since taking office.

Today we observe the legacy of a man who called upon Americans to strive together and to fight together, and to do their duty in the long struggle for equality and Civil Rights. In our Nation’s history, our military has often served as an example to the American people of unity and strength; of how a diverse group of people can be motivated by austere conditions and the grim realities of the battlefield to come together as equals.

Mattis then told a story of a small Army unit that traveled across the Pacific Northwest in 1805.

Young Meriwether Lewis and William Clark put the matter of whether to cross the perilous mouth of the Columbia River to all hands. The unit included a slave named York and a Native American woman named Sacagawea. For the first time in the history of our Republic, among the members of this isolated patrol far from home, a black man, a Native American, white men and a woman voted as equals with everyone else.

He went on to say:

Our Armed Forces are stronger today because of the perseverance of Dr. King and so many others in this country who have fought for Civil Rights and equality for all. And we can trace our roots back to an Army patrol in 1805 when we listened to our better angels. On this day of action, we are inspired to continue being a model for our Nation.

It is too early to say how loud Mattis’s voice will be among Trump’s advisers, or whether the president will listen to his guidance. There are some signs that what Mattis says matters to Trump. At his confirmation hearing, Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “I would not have taken this job if I didn’t believe the President-elect would also be open to my input on [Russia] or any other matter.” In his written responses to the committee’s advance policy questions, Mattis made strong statements of support for NATO. He said he was open to engagement with Russia, but in “areas where we cannot cooperate, we must confront Russia’s behavior, and defend ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to our interests.”

On torture, Mattis said, “I fully support using the Army Field Manual as the single standard for all U.S. military interrogations. I upheld that same standard before and after it was adopted in 2006.” According to ABC News, Trump has said that while he believes torture works, he’s going to defer to Mattis for now.

Image: Alex Wong/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).