We are just months away from the Republican National Convention, and neither Donald Trump nor Sen. Ted Cruz are likely to have the necessary 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot. This means a dark horse candidate is a possibility. Given the complexity of the security environment and years of seemingly aimless warfighting, it is critical we have a national security candidate, preferably one who is an “outsider.” Several are eminently qualified, and among them one stands high above the rest: General James “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Among his higher-profile military achievements during more than four decades in the Marine Corps, Mattis led the successful 2003 charge in Baghdad and beat back insurgent attacks in Fallujah. Although his war-fighting prowess is enough to give him notoriety, he is most famous for his tough, colorful talk and his willingness to say unpopular things.
He once said to a recently surrendered group of Iraqi generals, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you ‘fool’ with me, I’ll kill you all.” In a speech dubbed “Dispelling the PTSD Myth,” Mattis challenged, “There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role.” Few people could get away with a comment like that, but few people have enough credibility with veterans as Mattis.
His most recent command was head of U.S. Central Command where he did as well as any person could humanly do at implementing the strategies and operations as laid out (or as completely absent, as the case may be) by the civilian leaders in Washington. He did this all while pushing for greater clarity of mission and for full support to execute it.
He also sought to provoke his civilian bosses to think about how their decisions would cause second- and third-order consequences. For a perfect sampling of his teaching style and concerns, take a look at his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rather than giving the standard “this is how we are achieving the president’s strategy” story, he told the senators which question they should ask. A few of the questions included:
Is political Islam in our best interest? If not, what is our policy to support the countervailing forces? 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?
Unsurprisingly, in an administration unfriendly towards dissenters, the general’s questions, style, and objections earned him early retirement with little fanfare.
This is not the first time someone has suggested the warrior-poet-sage run for the highest office. He has had a fan following in the Marine Corps for years and others have already promoted the idea of his candidacy. But it has always seemed impossible, until in a recent interview with the Daily Caller, Mattis, although clearly not excited about the idea, did not rule out the possibility of a run (so you’re saying there’s a chance!). With renewed hope, here are four basic reasons Mattis would make a timely, excellent president.
1. He Understands and Loves America
Anyone who has spent time with him will tell you that Mattis, although an extraordinarily outstanding man among impressive men, is humble. He does not consider himself better than his subordinates or better than the political class that makes modern warfighting so difficult.
My late friend and teacher, Dr. Peter Schramm, after spending an evening with the general, fondly described him and their time this way: “You would not mistake this man for a Roman, or a Russian, or even an English general. An entirely American character, he is disposed to look at things from the inside rather than from without, and certainly not to look down on those of us he is sworn to protect. He understands that in this country all men may rise, that distinction is based only on merit; and he demonstrates gratitude for the opportunity to labor in his field.”
There is nothing pretentious or elitist about him, and we can be confident he will not be remarking about the high prices of arugula.
He also seems to understand, at the most basic level, how and why the Constitution is the way it is. A man like Mattis, of strong will and clear ideas about how things ought to happen, willfully subordinated himself to his civilian leaders and explained that his duty was to be heard, not obeyed.
In an interview with Peter Robinson on “Uncommon Knowledge,” he explained the challenge of working with political leaders and how he understood his role in implementing America’s military aims. He said his job was and continues to be to try to give his best military advice without creating animosity with the political leaders, because, as he said, it is all “[p]art of maintaining a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It needs military defenders but at the same time it does not exist for a military purpose.”
2. He Possesses Moral Clarity
President Obama’s tepid warfighting, his (and Hillary Clinton’s) inability to even utter the name of our foes, let alone their motives, his emotionless responses after horrific acts of terror, and his satisfaction with loserdom against a winnable foe have left a bulk of the American citizenry yearning for a strong leader who is unwilling to lose.
This is the appeal of Donald Trump, of course. But Trump has leadership all wrong. Yes, Trump wants to win, but besides the fact that he has no idea how to do that, his style, tone, and instincts, including his full defense of targeting women and children, turn manliness on its head. What is the point of fighting if the targets are the very things good men find worthy of defending?
Enter Mattis, a man who, when talking about the wickedness of militant Islamists, and his “sorry not sorry” attitude about snuffing them out, frequently describes their mistreatment and brutalization of women.
You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. (2005)
Gains achieved at great cost against our enemy in Afghanistan are reversible. We may not want this fight, but the barbarity of an enemy that kills women and children and has refused to break with al-Qaeda needs to be fought. (January 2015)
Having dealt with this enemy since 1979… we are up against an enemy that means what they say and we should not patronize them. When they say ‘girls don’t go to school’ you’re not going to talk them out of it… their views of the role of women, their views of modernity, their views of tolerance for people who think differently are fundamentally different than ours. (March 2015)
Here are the opening remarks of a speech he delivered: “Ladies, the wonderful ladies who exemplify grace & courage, who represent our better angels and what we fight for” (March 2014).
At a time when our country is seriously adrift regarding eadership and lacking in moral clarity, a President Mattis will give us a much-needed recalibration.
3. He Will Win
General Mattis knows how to win. He knows what is necessary to achieve military objectives, and therefore military victories. He knows how to identify the problem, and rout the enemy so it no longer wants to fight Americans. He understands what many in the political class do not: military battles are not merely fought with weapons; they are also a contest of wills. Or, as he said, “In my line of work, the enemy gets a vote.”
He understands the psychological and ideological side of warfare far better than the political classes in both the Bush and Obama administrations. For example, as a recently retired general, he testified before the Congress and said, “Specifically, if this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American ‘boots on the ground’…If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”
Catch that? Strengthen our allies and humiliate our adversaries. These objectives seem to have been underappreciated during the Bush years and inversely pursued during the Obama years.
Winning takes guts and sacrifice, but according to Mattis, current threats can be defeated. The real challenge is in identifying which adversaries warrant the threat of or the full force of American military might. Or, as Mattis asks, what does America want to do and what is it willing to tolerate? These questions aren’t easy for any commander in chief. But Mattis knows as well as anyone can what the U.S. military can achieve, and whose destruction is worth precious American blood and treasure.
4. He Is a Perpetual Student of History and People
Like Trump and Cruz, Mattis is not a successful professional politician, and that would be appealing to people; but unlike Trump, who is decidedly incurious, Mattis has a voracious appetite for reading, learning, and applying the lessons he learns. An administration run by a man like this suggests two departures from what we’ve witnessed from the Obama administration.
One, Mattis would look at things as they are and always have been, rather than as he wishes them to be or hopes to make them. Two, unlike President Obama, who seems to be in a constant state of surprise, Mattis cannot be surprised.
When asked why he always carried with him a copy of “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,” among other books, he explained, “It was good for me to be reminded that I faced nothing new under the sun… the bottom line is the fundamental impulses, the fundamental challenges, and the solutions are pretty timeless in my line of work.”
The great challenge for America is that men like Mattis don’t want to run for political office. And who could blame them? Between the demagoguery, brutal and slanted media coverage, and the kinds of base discourse that makes for good TV, it looks like a miserable undertaking. As Ben Boychuk recently penned, “We need a candidate like Mattis this year of all years. But we don’t deserve him.”
But as Schramm said after his evening with the general, “One claim he made left us skeptical. [Mattis] spoke of his upcoming retirement, telling us how keen he was to go back to Walla Walla, Washington, and relax for the rest of his days…Later that evening [my friend] Mac remarked how foolish it would be for such a fine man, such a ‘master of war,’ to be retired. Surely in times like these there was more work for such a man to do.”
Well, we truly might not deserve him, but in times like these there is more work for such a fine man to do. I hope this master of war serves our messy, wonderful country just one last time.