No, Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s recent comments do not contradict President Trump. Showing some frustration with the way reporters have been covering him, Mattis recently told reporters, “If I say six and the president says half a dozen, they’re going to say I disagree with him. Let’s just get over that.”
Mattis’s reprimand is 100 percent justified. Two recent incidents that dominated the defense news cycle make this clear. We’ll take the most recent one first. On August 29, North Korea once again flight-tested a ballistic missile, this time one that flew over Japan.
In response, President Trump issued a carefully worded statement that said: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior. Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”
The following day, the president tweeted: “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”
Hours later, reporters had the opportunity to question the secretary of Defense. Tara Copp, a reporter with the Military Times, said, “Secretary Mattis, you have often said you seek a diplomatic solution to North Korea. The president this morning tweeted that talking isn’t the answer. Are we out of diplomatic solutions for North Korea?”
Note here what should be obvious: the first two sentences are statements, the third one is a question. Mattis answered the question this way: “No.”
Diplomacy Includes More than Talking, Folks
Copp follows up: “What additional diplomatic solutions can be taken? And then for Minister Song, what additional U.S. military support might South Korea need to increase pressure on North Korea?”
Mattis answered: “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions. We continue to work together and the minister and I share responsibility to provide for the protection of our nation our populations, and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss today…”
Observe, Mattis did not say the United States is “talking” to North Korea, nor is it looking for opportunities to “talk” to North Korea. Additionally, he did not say the United States is considering sanctions relief, another way someone could reasonably interpret that the United States is considering “paying” North Korea. If he had said either of those things, one could and should conclude he was contradicting Trump.
As anyone who works in the field of defense policy, including those reporting on it, should know, diplomacy is not synonymous with talking. Talking can be used to achieve a diplomatic outcome, but diplomacy includes everything on the spectrum that a nation can use to solve a problem short of actually employing military force.
This can include economic sanctions, war gaming exercises, and promises of military preemption or retaliation — for example, when Mattis issued a statement that said: “The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” Therefore, nothing Mattis said broke with the president’s statement, which is what he adamantly said the following day.
Maybe Take an International Relations Class
The United States is currently engaged in what administration officials have called a “pressure campaign” against North Korea. This includes leading allies and partners to add sanctions and enforce existing ones. It includes demonstrating a strong commitment to regional allies, a coordinated effort to elicit verbal threats against North Korean leadership by the governments of Japan and South Korea, war-gaming exercises in cooperation with allies, and missile defense tests of weapons that could feasibly intercept the kinds of missiles North Korea continues to test. It includes public, explicit clarifications from the secretary of State that the United States does not seek regime change in North Korea, nor is it seeking an expedited plan to unify the peninsula.
But, like the president said, the administration is not “talking to” North Korea, nor is it offering to “pay” North Korea via sanctions relief in exchange for anything. The administration has made it very clear that President Trump is open to negotiations, once conditions are met. Short of that, in the words of President Trump, “talking is not the answer.”
Nonetheless, based on Mattis’s response to the question about diplomatic solutions, the following headlines emerged: “Trump Directly Counters Mattis, Military, In Tweet on North Korea”; “Trump Thinks There Is No Diplomatic Solution in North Korea. Mattis Thinks Otherwise”; “Mattis Disagrees With Trump: US ‘Never Out of Diplomatic Solutions’ on North Korea”; “Mattis says U.S. still aiming for diplomacy with North Korea despite Trump’s tweets to the contrary”; “Defense secretary quickly contradicts Trump over North Korea diplomacy.” There were more.
This Isn’t an Isolated Example
This non-undermining-the president moment in the media cycle came on the heels of another. That one involved the so-called “transgender ban.”
On July 26, the president tweeted his intention to disallow transgender individuals from serving in the military in the name of cost and military effectivess.
On August 25, the White House published its directions to the Pentagon regarding the president’s intention to reverse last-minute Obama administration plans to encourage the open military service of individuals identifying as transgender. In section 3 of the directive, it explicitly states:
By February 21, 2018, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall submit to me a plan for implementing both the general policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum and the specific directives set forth in section 2 of this memorandum. The implementation plan shall adhere to the determinations of the Secretary of Defense, made in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, as to what steps are appropriate and consistent with military effectiveness and lethality, budgetary constraints, and applicable law. As part of the implementation plan, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military. Until the Secretary has made that determination, no action may be taken against such individuals under the policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum.
Four days later, the secretary of Defense issued a memorandum stating his intention to do exactly as the president directed him to do. The memorandum stated:
The Department of Defense has received the Presidential Memorandum, dated August 25, 2017, entitled ‘Military Service by Transgender Individuals.’ The department will carry out the president’s policy direction, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security. As directed, we will develop a study and implementation plan, which will contain the steps that will promote military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion, with due regard for budgetary constraints and consistent with applicable law. The soon arriving senior civilian leadership of DOD will play an important role in this effort. The implementation plan will address accessions of transgender individuals and transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military.
There was no caveat. There was no hint of disagreement or insubordination. There was no whiff that Mattis did not approve of the president’s desire to return to the days before the military was treated as a “progressive” vehicle for “social justice” in the identity politics crusade. Indeed, Mattis has warned against treating the military as such.
Press Treats Mattis Like a Prop Whose Words Don’t Matter
In a 2015 hearing, speaking freely as a civilian, Mattis cautioned: “Finally, the culture of our military and its rules are designed to bring about a battlefield success in the most atavistic environment on earth. No matter how laudable in terms of a progressive country’s instincts, this committee needs to consider carefully any proposed changes to military rules, traditions, and standards that bring non-combat emphasis to combat units.”
But, perhaps unware of Mattis’s open and easily searchable statements cautioning against precisely the change President Obama made to the Pentagon, and perhaps also unable to see that Mattis literally stated he would do as explicitly directed by the president, the following headlines emerged: “Mattis freezes Trump ban on transgender troops pending review”; “Transgender ban frozen as Mattis moves forward with new review of options”; “Mattis: Transgender troops can keep serving pending study”; “James Mattis allows transgender service members to remain in place while a study on Trump’s ban gets underway”; “Mattis Puts Hold On Transgender Ban For Current Military Service Members.” No, the secretary of Defense is not leading or participating in a cabinet-level coup against the duly elected president of the United States.
Mattis has been adamant about his commitment to honor the Constitution’s proscription regarding civilian military leadership. Having said that, Mattis has not always agreed with the president on every issue. He has been open about some of those issues more than once. But, to the president’s great credit and in line with what Mattis himself has said, President Trump is open to being persuaded. This is even more so by those Trump respects, and evidence points to his great respect for Mattis.
Now, it’s hard to imagine Mattis likes Trump’s Twitter use. (It’s pretty funny to imagine Mattis reading the Early Bird to see what the commander in chief has most recently communicated.) But that’s politics. And Trump is a hyper-political animal who uses Twitter to communicate and elicit different responses from different audiences.
There do, however, appear to be a few major significant points of agreement between Mattis and Trump that warrant a closer study and more attention: one, that the military is first and foremost a fighting machine and works best when commanders have the freedom to execute their missions without those in Washington second-guessing them; two, that any military engagement must come once political objectives are clearly in mind so that victory is discernable and achievable; and three, that President Obama’s “leading from behind” shtick did great damage across the globe and that the Trump administration must work hard to regain America’s strategic advantage in the world.
On these critical matters, there is no daylight between the president and the secretary of Defense.