WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump’s shake-up of his national security team adds to the burden on one man at the center of any decision about war and peace: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Long a champion of alliances and diplomacy, Mattis increasingly finds himself surrounded by policy hawks on issues from Iran to North Korea. Yet his command of the nation’s 1.2 million active duty personnel makes him uniquely placed to steer Trump away from any rash decision to unleash the U.S. military.
Trump stunned his own aides this month by reshaping his foreign policy team in a more hawkish bent ahead of a key decision on the Iran nuclear deal and a historic summit with North Korea’s leader. With a tweet, he said he’d replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Then Thursday he tapped former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton to be his third national security adviser in 14 months, dismissing H.R. McMaster.
While the 67-year-old Mattis has broken with his boss on several top policy issues, he’s as permanent a fixture as anyone can be in the tumultuous Trump administration.
“He’ll be the last man standing,” said MacKenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. “He is the most powerful Cabinet member and knows it. He gets to run DoD and be a shadow secretary of state.”
Mattis made rare public comments alongside Trump on Friday when the president announced his decision to sign a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that earlier in the day he threatened to veto. Trump cited a $70 billion boost to the Pentagon budget as the overriding reason for him to sign the legislation, singling out a number of priority weapons projects that could now go forward.
“We need to take care of our military,” Trump said.
Taking the microphone, the four-star general lauded Trump’s decision to sign the funding bill by citing comments attributed to President George Washington in the 1790s, saying the support will help guarantee peace. “We in the military are humbled” by the backing provided by the American people, he added.
It’s clear from their relationship that Mattis “won’t be next” to leave the administration, Eaglen said, even though his three predecessors at the Pentagon — Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta — each lasted two years or less in the job.
Mattis, who Trump introduced to the country more than a year ago using the general’s “Mad Dog” nickname, will still have to contend with the rise of Pompeo and Bolton. The two are widely viewed as more hard-line conservatives who have openly championed the utility of regime change and pre-emptive strikes abroad.
So far, Mattis’ term as defense secretary has been characterized by a low-profile approach seemingly designed to limit “gotcha” moments where he might be seen as openly contradicting his boss. He’s held only two televised news conferences in the Pentagon briefing room — one last April after a cruise missile attack on Syria and the other in May, directed by Trump, to tout progress against the Islamic State.
But he has shown flashes of disagreement.
In a pep talk overseas last year, Mattis told U.S. soldiers to “hold the line” until Americans respect each other again, a comment many analysts interpreted as a criticism of the rhetoric emerging from Washington.
After Trump said in August that U.S. forces were “locked and loaded” to confront the North Korean regime, Mattis helped calm tensions by saying “nothing’s changed” in U.S. force posture and continuing with a tour of the U.S. West Coast. “U.S. forces maintain their usual high state of readiness in their deployed positions,” he said.
And while Trump has repeatedly labeled the 2015 deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program a “disaster,” and threatened to tear the agreement up by mid-May, Mattis has been more cautious. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October that if the U.S. “can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement,” he believed “this is something the president should consider staying with.”
That tightrope act between moderation and bombast seems to have worked so far. Trump referred to Mattis as “our great military genius-slash-person” in December. And the defense secretary earned a laudatory presidential tweet when he said it would be “game on” if North Korea fires missiles at the U.S.
In at least one way, Mattis has had a simpler job than any of his counterparts did: he oversees a department whose success Trump holds paramount and whose budget he has long sought to increase.
Unlike Tillerson, Mattis also seems to have earned the right to steer his department as he sees fit. On foreign policy, Trump once said “I’m the only one that matters.” He’s made no such claim when it comes to military issues, seeming to treat the military brass as a breed apart. Trump early on moved to give his generals in the field — from Afghanistan to Syria — more direct authority over combat decisions.
The question now is whether Mattis will find Bolton and Pompeo chipping away at his powers. Mattis had a strong alliance with Tillerson — they frequently coordinated their positions — in a partnership that was a break from past tensions between the heads of the Pentagon and the State Department.
Now, however, he finds himself surrounded by Cabinet members and advisers who disagree with his worldview, experienced bureaucratic insiders who enjoy the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics. Mattis is a firm believer in the so-called rules-based international order, under which the U.S. pays for the bulk of institutions such as the United Nations and NATO as a way of ensuring stability and maintaining its influence.
Of course, there’s never any guarantees in the Trump White House. The president has frequently proven quick to sour on top aides whose views he disagrees with, with almost half of his key advisers leaving since he took office.
“Mattis is now more isolated,” said Byron Callan, a defense markets and politics analyst in Washington for Capital Alpha Partners LLC. “He had kindred spirits in Tillerson and McMaster.”
If Mattis were to leave this year, he’d be the fourth consecutive defense secretary to do so after serving less than 24 months. Panetta, asked by President Barack Obama to shift over from the CIA to the Pentagon, served less than two years, from July 2011 to February 2013.
His successor, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, lasted a little longer — from February 2013 to February 2015. Hagel was succeeded by his deputy, Carter, who filled the position until January 2017.
Those who know Mattis say that he will play a more important role than ever now, with Iran deal decision looming and the president’s planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un coming as soon as May.
“Trump is the decider and while he is a saber-rattler I think he is very reluctant to get into conflicts that are dangerous with people who can shoot back,” said James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who was previously ambassador in Iraq, where Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the most recent war.
Jeffrey said he expects Mattis to resist any effort by Bolton to encourage another war. Even if he pushes, Jeffrey said, the Pentagon chief “won’t loan him an army to carry it out.”