As U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis Plots His Own Course
Donald Trump doesn't always get his way
In his first three months as U.S. defense secretary, James Mattis has embraced elements of Pres. Donald Trump’s aggressive war policy while also breaking from the Trump administration on several high-profile issues.
Mattis is, in other words, still very much his own man. And the Pentagon under Mattis has, so far, sidestepped some of Trump’s most obvious efforts to radically alter America’s military strategy.
Trump, a wealthy real-estate developer and former reality-T.V. star, had no government experience prior to his election in November 2016. Having campaigned on vague promises to “make American great again,” Trump assumed office without a clear and consistent set of policies.
Trump pledged to boost military spending but also threatened to end America’s major alliances. He called NATO “obsolete” and argued that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons so that the United States wouldn’t need to defend them.
So many observers were relieved when Trump nominated Mattis to head the Defense Department. Mattis, 66, served 44 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, ultimately serving as the commander of U.S. Central Command under Pres. Barack Obama before retiring in 2013.
Federal law requires military officers to wait seven years after retirement before serving as defense secretary. It’s testimony to Mattis’ popularity that the U.S. Congress quickly granted Mattis a waiver with a bipartisan vote. The Senate easily approved Mattis’ nomination in late January 2017.
One of Trump’s earliest and most divisive acts was to plot a big increase in military spending — an extra $30 billion in 2017 plus $54 billion more in 2018. Trump proposed to partially offset the Pentagon plus-up by halting federal environmental programs and gutting the U.S. State Department.
Trump had vowed to use any extra funding to expand the military, including growing the U.S. Navy’s frontline fleet from today’s 275 warships to 350 by, among other initiatives, boosting the number of aircraft carriers from 10 to 12 and adding 14 attack submarines to today’s 52-strong SSN force.
But Trump’s spending plan was preliminary and depended on federal agencies themselves to offer up precise figures and plans — and Congress to determine actual spending levels. Mattis wasted no time writing a budget that bore little resemblance to Trump’s proposal.
While Trump wants more ships and planes and other hardware, Mattis’ priority is to restore training programs and deal with a department-wide maintenance backlog. Any additional funds Congress approve for 2017 should go toward “improving warfighting readiness and key enablers to address the most immediate programmatic readiness shortfalls, as well as covering pay raises for military and civilian personnel,” the Defense Department stated in its March 15, 2017 supplemental budget proposal.
“Longer term efforts to improve the department’s capability, capacity and lethality will be pursued in future budgets.”
James Mattis in Munich in March 2017. U.S. Defense Department photo
Of the extra $30 billion the Pentagon requested in 2017, $9.5 billion would go to the Navy. The fleet would get 24 additional F/A-18E/F fighters and six extra P-8 patrol planes. But the bulk of the supplemental funding would pay for an additional 14,000 flying hours for aircrews plus expedited repairs to 14 ships, among other training and maintenance initiatives.
While subtly hijacking Trump’s spending plans, Mattis also has worked hard to walk back the president’s criticism of America’s alliances. Trump had questioned America’s longstanding military ties to Japan. Visiting Tokyo on Feb. 4, Mattis expressed confidence in those same ties.
“The alliance between the United States and Japan is enduring and will remain as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region,” Mattis said. “Let me assure you that Pres. Trump’s administration places a high priority on this region, and specifically on long-term allies like Japan.”
Trump had described NATO as “obsolete.” But at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 17, Mattis assured NATO leaders that, as far as he was concerned, the alliance was as important as it had ever been. “When it comes to security, no one goes their own way in this world alone,” Mattis said. “Security is always best when provided by a team.”
Mattis has diverged from the president on other issues, as well. Trump called climate change a “hoax” “created by and for the Chinese” in order to somehow undermine the American economy. Mattis made it clear in written responses to senators’ questions that climate change is real — and poses real security risks.
“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” Mattis wrote. “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”
It’s not clear whether Mattis’ stance on climate change will help to change Trump’s mind on the subject. But Mattis reportedly did alter the president’s way of thinking on Syria. In 2013, Trump had criticized Pres. Barack Obama for even considering launching air strikes against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. “Don’t attack Syria,” Trump had tweeted.
But when Al Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Idlib in early April 2017, Mattis reportedly recommended retaliation. On April 7, U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Assad’s Sharyat airfield, destroying an estimated 20 percent of the regime’s strike planes. “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons,” Mattis stated.
And for all his departures from Trump’s political philosophy, in at least one very important regard, the president and his defense secretary are perfectly aligned. The volatile, bellicose Trump threatened to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. Under Mattis, the Pentagon has loosened rules of engagements for air strikes.
And on April 13, 2017, U.S. forces dropped — for the first time in combat — one of the world’s biggest bombs, the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast munition. The MOAB’s thermobaric explosion reportedly killed scores of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province.
In his first three months, Mattis has selectively ignored, appropriated and internalized the Trump administration’s policies. The wisdom of Mattis’ approach is obvious.
Rank-and-file military personnel are surely comforted that their defense secretary intends to spend any budgetary windfalls on the armed forces’ most urgent needs. America’s allies are undoubtedly grateful for Mattis’ reassurances that the United States will honor its international commitments. And America’s enemies have been reminded that the United States still possesses the world’s most powerful military — and, under Mattis, is more willing to use it.