By most accounts, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis enjoys more independence from the White House than any of President Donald Trump’s cabinet secretaries.
Alone among Trump’s top advisers, the retired Marine general has been given free rein to run the Pentagon as he sees fit, shaping military policy in ways that sometimes conflict with the preferences of the National Security Council (NSC), and even the president himself.
Mattis has an uncanny ability to dissent from Trump’s policy positions while remaining in his good graces, as reporter Eliana Johnson explained in a POLITICO Magazine piece published Friday, “Why Trump Hasn’t Fired Mattis.”
During cabinet deliberations — and at times in public — Mattis opposed Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, implement tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even so, his job security has never been seriously questioned, leading some administration officials to conclude that he is “bulletproof.”
Mattis’ experience contrasts with that of his closest ally in the administration, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who clashed with the White House over staffing at Foggy Bottom and diplomatic outreach to Qatar and North Korea. Trump unceremoniously dumped Tillerson last week via Twitter in favor of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, his long-rumored replacement.
The degree to which Mattis has autonomy over U.S. defense policy is perhaps best illustrated by his relationship with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the broader NSC. On multiple occasions, Mattis has reportedly ignored McMaster’s requests for Pentagon planners to deliver options for military strikes in various global hotspots.
According to two National Security Council officials, Mattis has ignored McMaster’s requests for military options that would have allowed the U.S. to strike Eastern Gouta, in Syria, as well as requests to see plans on North Korea, and two requests for options to strike Iran — one in response to a scenario in which the country sank an American ship in the Persian Gulf, another to the possibility that Iranian-funded Houthi missiles coming out of Yemen could strike the Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia or the Saudi Aramco oil refinery.
“Mattis and Tillerson routinely ignored NSC requests on all sorts of things,” a White House official said, according to Johnson.
That dynamic could change when John Bolton replaces McMaster as Trump’s national security advisor in early April. Bolton is often caricatured as a mustachioed uber-hawk, but in official Washington he is known as a hard-charging, razor-sharp operator with a distaste for compromise.
Some national security veterans doubt Mattis will be able keep his distance from a Bolton-led NSC the way he has with McMaster in charge. Derek Chollet, an assistant defense secretary for international security affairs in the Obama administration, says Bolton is likely to show far less deference to the Pentagon than McMaster has.
“Mattis kept things civil with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, but the former 4-star general didn’t have much time for the 3-star who evidently didn’t have much juice with the president,” Chollet wrote Friday in Defense One. “With Bolton, Mattis will be facing something entirely different: an experienced bureaucratic knife-fighter who plays dirty and has a lot of ideas about how the military should be used.”
That characterization of Bolton’s style and skill is backed up by former President George W. Bush administration officials who saw him in action at the State Department and the NSC. Matthew Waxman, who worked under then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, recalls watching Bolton “run circles around rivals or chew them to pieces.”
Writing Friday in Lawfare, Waxman describes Bolton’s skill at bringing national security bureaucrats to heel:
Unlike his predecessors, Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster, Bolton is a very experienced and adept creature of Washington institutions. Similar to former Vice President Dick Cheney, he knows the levers and knobs of the vast national security and foreign policy machinery: how they work, who works them, and how to exert control over them. He’ll work to put loyalists in key vantage points and marginalize those he distrusts.
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Because Trump has already shifted most defense policymaking away from the White House to the Pentagon, Mattis is not likely to find himself taking orders from Bolton’s NSC. However, when it comes to shaping the administration’s approach to national security problems, particularly Iran and North Korea, he’ll soon be competing with a man whose ideas are much different from his own.
On Iran, Bolton is well known as an advocate for toppling the Islamic Republic’s clerical regime. He is also one of Washington’s most ardent critics of the Iran nuclear deal and has called instead for missile strikes to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
Mattis, who was fired as the head of U.S. Central Command by former President Barack Obama for taking too aggressive a stance on Iran, is comparatively dovish. He has recommended that Washington remain in the nuclear accord while finding other ways to pressure Iran on its ballistic missile program and support for militant groups.
Mattis is also much more skeptical than Bolton about taking military action over North Korea’s nuclear program. In concert with Tillerson, he has consistently pushed for a diplomatic resolution to Kim Jong Un’s quest for nuclear weapons that can strike the U.S. mainland.
Bolton, on the other hand, has expressed doubt that the Trump administration’s policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure will force Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump should launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korean nuclear assets before it can develop “deliverable nuclear weapons,” Bolton wrote in a February op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
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