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Defense secretary in action: More of the 'warrior monk' than 'Mad Dog' Mattis

December 15, 2017 Updated: December 15, 2017 at 10:30 am
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Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Egypt's Minister of Defense Gen. Sedky Sobhy in Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 2, 2017. Secretary Mattis is traveling to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait to re-affirm the enduring U.S. commitment to partnerships in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT - With the State Department in upheaval, and the president focused on "America First" domestic concerns, what diplomacy and foreign policy the White House is successfully exercising have fallen more and more to one man, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.

During a just concluded tour of Pakistan, Egypt, Kuwait, and Jordan, the Defense secretary sounded much more like the country's chief diplomat than its top soldier.

When talking to reporters during his trip, he stressed that U.S. foreign policy is not "myopically military only." He repeatedly used phrases like "rebuilding trust," "de-escalating tensions," "continued dialogue," "objectives of reconciliation," "mediating the rift," "deepening cooperation on shared interests."

He brought a message of stability and commitment to Mideast leaders, working hard to affirm U.S. bona fides as "a reliable security partner." In the world according to Mattis, the U.S. military carries on its shoulders "the hopes of mankind," and is a force for "strength and unity" in a time of great divisiveness in the country and the world.

It's the language of a fence mender rather than a bomb thrower. In taking on the diplomat mantel, Mattis also is showing why he is perhaps this White House's most effective, respected advocate and, when it comes to foreign relations, the superego to President Trump's id.

In Egypt, his first stop, "He's seen as nonpolitical, as a professional," said Sam Werberg, press attaché to the U.S. embassy in Cairo, who then saluted to demonstrate how Egyptians express their respect for Mattis. Since the military essentially runs Egypt, they are most comfortable with the military in the United States taking the lead in managing its relations, Werberg observed. As a result, Mattis provides a platform for dialogue that may be more potent at the moment than the State Department, which is in a state of flux following dozens of key departures and the president's orders to cut 2,000 employees. Forty-five countries do not have U.S. ambassadors appointed yet, including Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Mattis' 44 years of experience as a Marine, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and leading U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, have left him a host of deep relationships to draw on in his role as Defense secretary. Because of those ties, ironically, the man charged with conducting war is seen in this region as the center of calm in a chaotic administration. In each of his stops, the red carpet was literally rolled out for him at the airport.

When asked on the plane ride over to Cairo if he's doing more diplomacy now than he had as a Marine in the past, he answered: "No, I've been doing it for a long time. I've known a lot of these guys we're meeting with a long time. Back when they were crown princes, I fought with some of them."

I asked him how much it helps, having those long relationships in place in Jordan, Pakistan and other Mideast countries.

"It's the only thing that works. Makes all the difference in the world," Mattis said.

Because of those longstanding friendships, Mattis prefers a lower key, smaller footprint when he comes into a country, said Capt. Jeff Davis, Mattis' spokesman. Pointing with two fingers back and forth between my eyes and his, Davis says, "He prefers face to face. Likes to break off and go one on one with the officials he meets."

He's not one for large ceremonies, photo ops with the troops or joint press conferences, of which he had none during the trip. A U.S. official who was in the room with Mattis during talks with the leaders of Pakistan, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, says after the big delegation meetings, he likes to pull key players off to the side one at a time, then "roll up his sleeves and get down to specifics, that is his style, moving quickly past abstractions and generalities." Aides close to him say, more than anything, he "prioritizes trust."

Even his discussions with Pakistan, which Mattis has criticized harshly in the past and whose relationship with the United States has been like an on-again, off-again bad marriage, were more about diplomacy than defense, shared values and wounds than past differences. The official who was present at the talks said Mattis called on Pakistan to play a leading role in bringing the Taliban to the table in Afghanistan, so that a peace there came be hammered out politically, rather than militarily.

Contrast Mattis' language with the language of his boss, who retweeted anti-Muslim videos that caused a furor right before Mattis began his tour of four Muslim-majority nations. From the president's twitter feed: "VIDEO: Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches. VIDEO: Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death! VIDEO: Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!" And later: "@Theresa_May, don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!" And on North Korea: "The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man."

Trump also dropped a bombshell during Mattis' trip that agitated the very leaders Mattis was meeting with and turned his trip into something of a reassurance tour. Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move Palestinians say will kill the U.S.-brokered peace process. The same day Mattis met with the Jordanian leader, King Abdullah, Abdullah begun consultations to convene an emergency meeting of the Arab League in response to concerns about unrest throughout the region. The Associated Press reported that Mattis had voiced concern to Trump before the announcement about endangering U.S. diplomats and troops in Muslim countries, according to officials briefed on internal administration deliberations.

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Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Egypt's Minister of Defense Gen. Sedky Sobhy in Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 2, 2017. Secretary Mattis is traveling to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait to re-affirm the enduring U.S. commitment to partnerships in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith) 

But a political observer in Cairo assured me that Jordanians and Egyptians trust Mattis implicitly despite the distracting storylines in D.C. One of the advisers traveling with Mattis said the anti-Muslim tweets didn't even come up in talks with leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Werner said most Egyptian politicians are savvy enough to know that Trump is playing to his base In America with such comments, and they have no real bearing on relations with them.

Trump may see political gains out of demonizing Muslims occasionally, but clearly his Defense secretary believes wholeheartedly the United States cannot afford to alienate Muslim allies. He's an internationalist in a nationalist administration.

"History is clear," he said to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing. "Nations with strong allies thrive, and those without them wither."

And it doesn't appear whatsoever that Trump minds the contrast. Mattis seems to be one of the only people in the administration who can disagree with the boss and get away with it. He even did so during his job interview, when he successfully argued Trump out of re-embracing torture as an acceptable method of interrogation.

He has also disagreed with Trump over the vital role NATO still plays (and won) and on the necessity of not pulling troops out of Afghanistan (and won.)

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Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah during visit to Kuwait on Dec. 5, 2017. Mattis is traveling to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait to re-affirm the enduring U.S. commitment to partnerships in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith) 

The feather-smoother is not a role you'd expect to come naturally to Mattis given his "Mad Dog" reputation for blunt talk and aggressive military action.

Enlisting in the Marines at age 19, he has fought in the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, where his radio call signal was "chaos." He played a key role in the bloody battle of Fallujah. The four-star general is a popular leader known for getting in the trenches with his men. The Marine Corps Times called him "the most revered Marine in a generation."

And he's a lover of kick-their-ass slogans such as "be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet," and "War makes good men better and bad men worse."

During his single appearance on "Face the Nation," John Dickerson asked him what keeps him up at night.

"Nothing," Mattis answered. "I keep other people awake at night."

In 2005 he attracted controversy for telling an audience at a panel discussion: "It's fun to shoot some people."

One of the reasons he doesn't like much press around, especially when he is with soldiers, is so that he can be himself, talk like a Marine. He got into trouble again in August when he used macho language to urge submariners on in their duty. According to the transcript of a speech he gave at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington, he told sailors they faced the best and worst days of their life ahead. "That means you're living." He said. "That means you're not some pussy sitting on the sidelines."

But to see the 67-year-old Mattis in action in the Mideast in his blue blazer and purple tie and thoughtful, scholarly approach to leaders and defense ministers is to see more of the "warrior monk" as he is sometimes called, than "Mad Dog" Mattis, a nickname given to him "on a slow day" by a journalist.

The lifelong bachelor often carries a volume of "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, with him on the road from his vast library of 6,000 books.

A proud Westerner - he was born and raised and schooled in Washington state - he told me he is currently reading "Earning the Rockies," about how geography determines who you are. You get the sense from Mattis that he'd rather be somewhere west of the Rockies, and he's only doing this because he was asked, not because he particularly wanted the job. When asked by a reporter if he likes what he's doing after a year, He says, "It doesn't matter what I feel, it's my duty."

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Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks with the press during a flight to Egypt from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Dec. 1, 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith) 

His tour was all about quiet engagement rather than big policy announcements or rah-rah visits with the troops, like these tours have been with past secretaries. Davis said that's because Mattis comes at such staged events from the enlisted man's perspective, having attended quite a few himself that he thought were a waste of time, and such events sometimes put a bigger target on troops in combat zones. In Mattis' view, Davis said, such photo op stops are more about the secretary than the soldiers. Mattis' focus is unwaveringly on the grunt in uniform. He's not one to be distracted by the bright lights of self-importance.

"He sees no value in having his name in the paper," an unnamed Defense official told the Washington Examiner.

Clearly he limits the D.C. press as a result. Davis said it's not about the scripted moments and daily news "deliverables" for Mattis. Off the plane, the press was mostly sidelined, secondary to the secretary's central mission of private talks with leaders, a focus that caused not a small amount of grumbling.

Only eight of the 18 seats in the press cabin were filled on the Mideast trip, and he's taken to including press from beyond the beltway, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network, Breitbart, and of course, The Gazette. But he talks to reporters, informally and articulately, on the plane more than other Defense secretaries, one reporter told me.

Even though the Gazette is a small regional paper, he came over and chatted extensively with me. "I have a lot of respect for your newspaper," he told me, mentioning, to my astonishment, one Tom Roeder article about soldiers killed in action specifically. "We're going to have more regional newspapers on these trips." His emphasis on the little guy throughout his career carries over to the press, apparently. "I see these other guys all the time. They're a pain in the ass," he joked aloud about representatives of NBC, AP, Bloomberg and Reuters. CNN, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were conspicuously absent from the trip.

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Defense Secretary James N. Mattis speaks with the media during a flight to Kuwait from Aqaba, Joran, Dec. 3, 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith) 

Mattis' reputation for aggressive action and the preponderance of military brass in the leadership of this administration have worried some Washington observers that the military is essentially taking over foreign policy and the use of force will become a too-prominent tool of our foreign policy.

The White House has populated many of its key positions with ex-generals and expanded their authority, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelley and of course Mattis, who had to receive a waiver to become Defense secretary because usually you have to wait seven years after retiring from active duty to get the job, and he only had three.

But Mattis doesn't see more military in leadership as a negative whatsoever. The military has had to be in the diplomacy business for years, he said, and foreign policy is necessarily a combination of military, diplomatic and economic options. He has a strong relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps his closest ally in the administration, and has called in the past for more resources for the State Department. In congressional testimony in 2013, he said, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition."

Mattis believes rather the opposite, that the military has a crucial wider role to play in diplomacy, and U.S. society at large.

What does our warrior in chief see as our biggest threat right now? Not ISIS or Russia or even Iran. He's most worried about the divisiveness he sees back in the homeland.

His spokesman Davis says Mattis believes deep in his gut that it's up to the military to play a unifying role in this time of acute partisanship. The military, Davis points out, is perhaps the most representative and most respected institution in the country right now, polling far ahead of politicians and journalists.

In a speech in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mattis said, "Our military has often served as an example to the American people of unity and strength, of how a diverse group of people can be motivated ... to come together as equals. Military service in America is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, creeds."

We've come a long way from the Vietnam days when soldiers themselves were a cause of division, spit on and vilified. In the world according to Mattis, the military is healer and inspirer, a social force for getting us past our divisions and again finding common ground.

In a now-famous letter to troops before the start of the Iraq War, Mattis put it this way:

"You are part of the world's most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. ... Share your courage with each other ... keep faith in your comrades on your left and on your right. ... Fight with a happy heart and a strong spirit. Demonstrate to the world there is 'No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy' than a U.S. Marine. ... On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind."

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