The Best Defense

The ouster of Mattis: Some follow-up details and a White House response

Here are a few things I have heard since I posted my comments on Friday about the Obama administration pushing General Mattis out at Central Command. Thanks to all who wrote in to make this follow-up possible:

  • A particular point of disagreement was what to do about mischief Iran is exporting to other countries. Mattis is indeed more hawkish on this than the White House was.
  • National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in particular was irked by Mattis's insistence on being heard. I cringe when I hear about civilians shutting down strategic discussions. That is exactly what the Bush administration did in late 2002 when generals persisted in questioning whether it was wise to invade Iraq. That led to what some might call a fiasco.
  • I wonder if Donilon understands that the key to making effective, sustainable national security policy is having robust, candid discussions between civilian and military leaders that bring to the surface differences and also explore assumptions. I am told that that is what Mattis was trying to do. He knows, as do all smart generals, that in our system, at the end of the discussion the civilians get to decide what to do. In a talk at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late November, Mattis said that, "We military leaders have a right and duty to be heard, to give our best military advice, but we were not elected to and we have no right to dictate." (In the same talk, Mattis also likened Cairo today to Paris in 1789 -- a very interesting thought, and one that made me wonder if 15 years from now, one Arab leader will dominate the entire region as Napoloen dominated Europe early in the 19th century.)
  • Insisting on being heard should be part of the duty of a senior general. That's the lesson of two great books: H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty and Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command. Indeed, General Mattis cited the latter in his talk at Johns Hopkins SAIS. I suspect Donilon needs to brush up on both.  
  • In his dealings with the White House, Mattis also tried to change the strategic framework, insisting that we need to plan not just for what we assumed Iran might do, but also for what Iran was capable of doing. I am told this was not a welcome thought.
  • The Mattis-Donilon disagreements weren't just about Iran. Other issues on which Mattis was pushing the White House to think deeper and harder, I am told, were "Afghanistan, concerns about Pakistani stability, [and] response to the Arab spring."
  • The mishandling of Mattis is a larger part of an attempt by Donilon to centralize foreign policy making in his office, with DOD and State as implementers. My guess is that this is doomed.
  • The Marines are watching this intensely, but the other services also are taking note. The careerist generals will take the lesson that go along gets along. The duty-before-career guys will either go to ground or leave. Hence this incident likely will be a factor in shaping the character of the general officer corps for several years.

On Saturday I sent the above post over to the NSC for comment. Here, without comment from me, is what NSC spokesman "Tommy" Vietor wrote back:

I greatly appreciate your offer to allow us to comment.

What you describe in your email doesn't at all resemble the rigorous, open NSC process I've been a part of here at the White House. The role of the NSC is to coordinate the interagency and facilitate an all of government process and discussion to ensure each agency has input into national security policy. General Mattis has been a critical part of those discussions about the CENTCOM region, and it's completely inaccurate to say there was any effort to prevent him from airing his views. I'd note that General Mattis prepares a weekly report for the Chairman and SecDef on everything that's happening in his AOR. Tom makes sure that report is delivered to the President each week in full.

With respect to Iran policy, Tom [Donilon] worked directly with CENTCOM's leadership, in particular General Mattis and General Allen, to put together our force posture in the region. Without getting into detail, there has obviously been extensive contingency planning related to Iran and the region, and there has been a policy process that has been deliberately structured to allow for assumptions to be challenged and hard questions to be asked at the highest levels of government.

More broadly speaking, many of DOD's top leaders have said that the process Tom lead to formulate out defense strategy was the most robust, open and inclusive conversation they've been a part of.  

To quote Secretary Panetta: "And in my experience, this has been an unprecedented process, to have the President of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views. It's truly unprecedented."

Chairman Dempsey: "This strategy emerges from a deeply collaborative process.  We sought out and took insights from within and from outside the Department of Defense, to include from the intelligence community and other governmental departments.  We weighed facts and assessments.  We challenged every assumption.  We considered a wide range of recommendations and counter-arguments.  I can assure you that the steps we have taken to arrive at this strategy involved all of this and much more. This strategy also benefited from an exceptional amount of attention by our senior military and civilian leadership.  On multiple occasions, we held all-day and multi-day discussions with service chiefs and combatant commanders.  The service chiefs, who are charged with developing the force for the strategy, were heard early and often.  The combatant commanders, charged with executing the strategy, all weighed in time and time again. And we were all afforded extraordinary access to both the president and the secretary of defense."

The bottom line is that we are extraordinarily grateful to General Mattis for his patriotism and his service. He is a critical part of our team, and we look forward to his continued counsel in the months ahead.

Tom Ricks again: That comment struck me as blather that obscured more than it illuminated.  I said so to Mr. Vietor, who wrote back to ask me what specifically he hadn't addressed.  So I sent over these questions:

  • Why does Mr. Donilon think Gen. Mattis is leaving earlier than planned?

Vietor's answer: "I'm going to let General Mattis speak to the timing of his departure."

  • Did Mattis and Donilon have specific disagreements about how to respond to Iranian mischief abroad?

Vietor's answer: "This won't satisfy you, but both Tom [Donilon] and General Mattis understand that policy debates and advice to the President should remain confidential, so I have no plan to outline their candid advice or views."

  • Does Donilon welcome hearing dissenting views? If so, why is there a widespread perception among the uniformed military that he does not?

Vietor's answer: "The President and Tom both welcome hearing dissenting views. Its crucial to good policy making. I can't speak to an alleged anonymous perception. If you quote someone on the record or something specific, I can try to offer more."

  • Is Donilon aware that the Obama administration twice has dumped on the two current culture heroes of the Marine Corps? Why does he think this is? What signal does Donilon think he has sent with his handling of Mattis?

Vietor's answer: "The average tour length of the previous 25 COCOMs is 2.7 years. The longest serving COCOM is Admiral Stavridis, who assumed command of SOUTHCOM in October 2006.  The second longest serving COCOM is General James Mattis, who assumed command of Joint Forces Command in November 2007.  The President just appointed General Allen SACEUR. The last Marine SACEUR was Jim Jones, who later become NSA. I think that's a pretty strong signal about how much the President values the Marine Corps."

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The Best Defense

The Obama administration’s inexplicable mishandling of Marine Gen. James Mattis

Word on the national security street is that General James Mattis is being given the bum's rush out of his job as commander of Central Command, and is being told to vacate his office several months earlier than planned.

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way -- not because he went all "mad dog," which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, "And then what?"

Inquiry along these lines apparently was not welcomed -- at least in the CENTCOM view. The White House view, apparently, is that Mattis was too hawkish, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I'd call him a tough-minded realist, someone who'd rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.

Presidents should feel free to boot generals anytime they want, of course -- that's our system, and one I applaud. But ousting Mattis at this time, and in this way, seems wrong for several reasons:

TIMING: If Mattis leaves in March, as now appears likely, that means there will be a new person running CENTCOM just as the confrontation season with Iran begins to heat up again.

CIVIL-MILITARY SIGNALS: The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn't like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors. In fact, that is exactly what it (and every administration) should want. Had we had more back in 2003, we might not have made the colossal mistake of invading Iraq.

SERVICE RELATIONS: The Obamites might not recognize it, but they now have dissed the two Marine generals who are culture heroes in today's Corps: Mattis and Anthony Zinni. The Marines have long memories. I know some who are still mad at the Navy for steaming away from the Marines left on Guadalcanal. Mattis made famous in Iraq the phrase, "No better friend, no worse enemy." The Obama White House should keep that in mind.

I'm still a fan of President Obama. I just drove for two days down the East Coast listening to his first book, and enjoyed it enormously. But I am at the point where I don't trust his national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.

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