General (ret’d) James (Mad Dog) Mattis on a new Grand Strategy for America

89e52643bf209f4fa3b68560aa9564bfThere is an excellent article on the Hoover Institution‘s website, from almost two years ago, by General James Mattis, who has been nominated to be the US Secretary of Defence, entitled: “A New American Grand Strategy.”

General Mattis begins by explaining that: “The world is awash in change. The international order, so painstakingly put together by the greatest generation coming home from mankind’s bloodiest conflict, is under increasing stress. It was created with elements we take for granted: the United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods and more. The constructed order reflected the wisdom of those who recognized no nation lived as an island and we needed new ways to deal with challenges that for better or worse impacted all nations. Like it or not, today we are part of this larger world and must carry out our part. We cannot wait for problems to arrive here or it will be too late; rather we must remain strongly engaged in this complex world … [and] …  The international order built on the state system is not self-sustaining. It demands tending by an America that leads wisely, standing unapologetically for the freedoms each of us in this room have enjoyed. The hearing today addresses the need for America to adapt to changing circumstances, to come out now from its reactive crouch and to take a firm strategic stance in defense of our values … [but] … While we recognize that we owe future generations the same freedoms we enjoy, the challenge lies in how to carry out our responsibility. We have lived too long now in a strategy-free mode.

I disagree with nothing, especially not with the notion that for the past eight years America has been “in a strategy-free mode.” I may not have agreed with President George W Bush’s grand strategy, but I knew that he had one; I was never sure with President Obama.

General Mattis then says (and the “you” refers to the members of the United States Senate Armed Services Committee) that “I suggest that the best way to cut to the essence of these issues and to help you in crafting America’s response to a rapidly changing security environment is to ask the right questions. Those questions, he goes on to say, include:

  • What are the key threats to our vital interests?
  • Is our intelligence community fit for its expanding purpose?
  • How do we urgently halt the damage caused by sequestration?
  • More broadly, is the U.S. military being developed to fight across the spectrum of combat?
  • In light of worldwide challenges to the international order we are nonetheless shrinking our military. Are we adjusting our strategy and taking into account a reduced role for that shrunken military?
  • Does our strategy and associated military planning take into account our nation’s increased need for allies?
  • In reference to NATO and in light of the Russian violations of international borders, we must ask if the Alliance’s efforts have adjusted to the unfortunate and dangerous mode the Russian leadership has slipped into?
  • As we attempt to restore stability to the state system and international order, a critical question will be: Is America good for its word?

General Mattis, 22 months ago, did not sound at all like President elect Trump on the campaign trail. He wants stronger alliances, he wants allies, like Canada, to do more, of course; every sane, sensible military man does. But he is cautious about the utility of war and about America’s capacity to fight them all.

There is another view of General Mattis in the New Yorker, which is hardly a Trump friendly journal, by Steve Coll, who is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and, after some discussion of Mattis as soldier-diplomat, he concludes with two important points:

  • First, “The confirmation of Mattis, who retired from the military only three years ago, would present a worrisome departure from civilian control over the Pentagon. Congress would have to issue a special waiver;” and
  • Second, “If Mattis is confirmed, there is at least the possibility that the General will move the Trump Administration toward reinforcing peaceful alliances and international stability, and will refuse to allow the Administration’s extremism to influence him.

The first concern is valid, the last time a recently retired general was made secretary of defence it was George C Marshall in 1950/51 and he was brought in to address some particular issues, especially those involved with organizing for the Korean War, and stayed only 365 days in office, an agreement he had made with the president. Americans have a traditional and healthy mistrust of military men being too near the levers of military power.

Steve Coll’s second point seems, to me, more important. Everything I have heard and read about James Mattis suggests that he is honest, tough minded, thoughtful, even an intellectual, and unconvinced about the utility of military force in many situations. He might be just the voice that President elect Trump needs.

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