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:
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.
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.)
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
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.
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."
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
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."
"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:
does Mr. Donilon think Gen. Mattis is leaving earlier than planned?
answer: "I'm going to let General Mattis speak to the timing of his departure."
Mattis and Donilon have specific disagreements about how to respond to Iranian
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."
Donilon welcome hearing dissenting views? If so, why is there a widespread
perception among the uniformed military that he does not?
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."
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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