According to The Washington Post, President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, 66, to be secretary of defense. The Post reported the announcement will be made next week.
Mattis will need an exemption from Congress, as he retired less than four years ago, and secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. The only time this exemption was granted was in 1959, when Gen. George C. Marshall was appointed by Harry Truman.
Mattis served from November 2007 to August 2010 as the supreme allied commander of transformation for NATO; he retired as the chief of U.S. Central Command in spring 2013 after serving over four decades in the Marine Corps. Since 2013, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.
Mattis talks tough on Iran, although he has said he would not scrap the nuclear deal. He stated, “The Iranian regime in my mind is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. Despite repeated mentions of the Islamic State and al Qaeda by others… Nothing I believe is as serious in the long term in enduring ramifications in terms of stability, and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there than Iran.”
Yet vis-à-vis the Iran deal, he said, the deal may be “the best we could come up with,” adding:
We are just going to have to recognize that we have an imperfect arms control agreement. Second, that what we achieved is a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt, and we’re going to have to plan for the worst … There’s no going back. I don’t think that we can take advantage of some new president’s — Republican or Democrat — and say we’re not going to live up to our word on this agreement. I believe we would be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have near the impact of an allied approach.
Regarding Russia, Mattis asserted that Russia’s taking of Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine was “much more severe, more serious” than Washington and the European Union treated it.
Mattis and Trump may be at loggerheads when it comes to NATO: Mattis told Politico in July that he considered Trump’s opinion that U.S. allies were not paying their “fair share” of costs to support the alliance, “about as kooky as [if] a president were to call our allies freeloaders . . . Some of those allies have lost more troops per capita in Afghanistan than we have.”
A former senior Pentagon official told the Post that Mattis was a two-edged sword, that he was tough and honest, but his strong views could lead to conflict with the White House:
The President-elect is smart to think about putting someone as respected as Jim Mattis in this role. He’s a warrior, scholar, and straight shooter — literally and figuratively. He speaks truth to everyone, and would certainly speak truth to this new commander-in-chief. If there’s any concern at all, it’s the principle of civilian control over the military. This role was never intended to be a kind of Joint Chiefs of Staff on steroids, and that’s the biggest single risk tied to Mattis. For Mattis, the biggest risk for him personally is that he’ll have a national security adviser in the form of Mike Flynn whose management style and extreme views may arch Mattis’ eyebrows and cause conflict over time. It’s no fun to be secretary of defense if you have to constantly feud with the White House.
Mattis has blamed Israeli settlements for harming prospects for peace with the Palestinians, saying in 2013, “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
For more on Mattis, see here.