(Bloomberg) -- President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday that he will nominate General James Mattis, a career U.S. Marine and a hawk on Iran, as the nation’s 26th defense secretary.
Trump made the announcement at a rally in Cincinnati after telling the audience: “Don’t let it outside of this room. Promise?" Trump called Mattis “one of our great, great, great generals” and referred to him by his nickname: "Mad Dog."
Mattis, 66, was hailed as “one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops” in a statement by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona. Short and wiry with a brush-cut haircut, Mattis was known as the “Warrior Monk.”
Trump showed his hand on Mattis after the two had an extended meeting at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister, New Jersey, on Nov. 19. After the encounter, he tweeted, “General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!”
Later, Trump said the blunt-talking Mattis had even caused him to rethink his campaign pledge to revive waterboarding, an interrogation tactic used against suspected terrorists that President Barack Obama had banned. “He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better,”’ the president-elect recounted to the New York Times.
In picking Mattis, the president-elect passed over contenders thought to include former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former Senator James Talent of Missouri.
The choice breaks an impasse in filling the top national security posts in the next administration. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state remains unresolved, as some of his top advisers and supporters openly oppose the prospect of picking Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who vigorously opposed Trump’s candidacy this year. Another retired general, David Petraeus, is among alternatives Trump has been considering.
Mattis retired in 2013 after a 41-year career in the Marines that took him from rifleman to head of the U.S. Central Command. That will add an extra step to his confirmation: Congress would need to pass legislation waiving a law that bars appointing anyone as secretary of defense “within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer.”
While the exception was last granted in 1950 for General George C. Marshall, Mattis is likely to attract active support for the waiver from lawmakers on the congressional armed services committees, including McCain.
As head of Central Command, responsible for U.S. forces in the Mideast and Afghanistan, Mattis “showed exceptional skill in coordinating forces for joint warfare and in building strategic partnership with our regional allies,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center For Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail. “He also showed the kind of realism about the level and kinds of force needed to achieve decisive results the Obama administration consistently failed to understand” so “his selection will do a great deal to reassure our allies.”
A native of Pullman, Washington, near the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Mattis has more than 30 years’ experience in the Middle East, where he first deployed in 1979 as an infantry company commander. That includes leading Task Force 58 in southern Afghanistan, the First Marine Division during the initial stages of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and later phases including operations in Fallujah and the Anbar Awakening during the 2007 troop surge.
Mattis led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s transformation office and rewrote -- along with Army General Petraeus -- the military’s counterinsurgency field manual. He was one of few military officers who identified U.S. economic debt as a national security issue. Mattis also headed the now-disbanded U.S. Joint Forces Command, which crafted doctrine for the military.
While Trump called in his campaign for the U.S. to pull back from many foreign entanglements and prod other nations to play a bigger military role, Mattis has argued for a more assertive role.
“Mattis, with his unvarnished approach to calling it like he sees it, is likely to provide President-elect Trump with an early test: Does Trump value loyalty over the truth?” Tom Ricks, national security fellow at the New America Foundation, said in an e-mail. Ricks wrote of Mattis’s Iraq war command in “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.”
Mattis has been in sync with Trump on Iran, calling Obama’s deal to curb its nuclear program “an arms control agreement that fell short” and labeling the regime in Tehran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
One question likely to come up during Mattis’s Senate confirmation hearing is his role on the board of Theranos Inc., which has become embroiled in a scandal over faulty claims for its blood-testing technology. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former secretaries of state, also have been among the company’s directors.
In 2012, before the flaws in its technology were uncovered, Elizabeth Holmes, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, asked Mattis, who was still in the military, to squelch a Pentagon reviewer’s “blatantly false information” about the company, the Washington Post reported last year. Mattis declined to answer specific questions, the newspaper reported, but issued a statement saying he had “the greatest respect for the company’s mission and integrity.”
Mattis may also be questioned about his views on the Middle East. He said in 2013 that he hoped the “protagonists” of the Israel-Palestine conflict “want peace and a two-state solution as much as” the “valiant” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did, and that the prospects for a two-state solution were starting to wane because of the location of settlements.
“For example, if I’m Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here somewhere to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote -- apartheid,” Mattis said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country. So we’ve got to work on this with a sense of urgency.”
Mattis also said he “paid a military security price every day as the commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
‘Jim Gets That’
If confirmed by the Senate and exempted from the seven-year restriction, which is intended to preserve civilian oversight of the military, Mattis will succeed Ash Carter, a nuclear physicist, long-time civilian employee at the Defense Department, and former Harvard University professor.
Putting a former four-star general in charge at the Pentagon -- in tandem with former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, whom Trump has named to head the National Security Council -- “potentially moves us away from the tradition of civilians leading our national security apparatus,” Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta while Mattis was at Central Command, said in an e-mail.
“Any former general will have to go out of his way to show he reflects the views of the political leadership of the country and not merely the views of the uniformed military,” Bash said in an e-mail. “Jim gets that.”
Bash called Mattis “one of the most respected military leaders of his era. He knows combat but also sees the strategic dimensions of defense policy. He was hawkish on Iran, but given the dangerous game Iran has been playing, that’s probably called for.”
In a “Blueprint For Security” essay in August, Mattis and two co-authors wrote that “we have been slow to identify emergent threats and unwilling to prioritize competing interests; we have sent confounding messages to enemies and allies alike. Our country urgently needs to up our game, make common cause with countries that are willing to help repair and sustain the international order that has served the United States and our allies so well.”
“If the world feels more dangerous to you, it should,” Mattis and his colleagues said in the essay. “We are seeing the results of 20 years of the United States operating unguided by strategy.”
‘Fun to Shoot’
For all the praise showered on him, Mattis also has been criticized for intemperate remarks. In 2005 during a speech in San Diego, Mattis was quoted as saying it was “fun to shoot some people,” that “it’s a lot of fun to fight,” and “it’s a hell of a hoot.”
The Marine Corps said at the time that Mattis had been “counseled” about the comments. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010, when Mattis was nominated as the head of Central Command, that “appropriate action was taken at the time. I think that the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned.”