When Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018, he was widely lauded and lamented as “the last grown-up” in the Trump administration. The tributes were commentary more on Trump than on Mattis. For if he had run the Pentagon during a normal presidency, in which grown-ups abound, his tenure would be considered undistinguished, to say the least.
This isn’t to deny that for much of his time in office, Mattis—a retired marine four-star general and charismatic commander in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—served as an effective counter to Trump’s most unstatesmanlike instincts. He assured allies in Europe and Asia of America’s security commitments, which Trump repeatedly disparaged. (Mattis often said it felt like he was running “the Department of Reassurance.”) He initiated programs that bolstered the defenses of NATO’s eastern nations, especially in the Baltics, without stirring Trump’s notice. He resisted pressures to start senseless wars against Iran and North Korea. These are the kinds of things that most secretaries of defense would do routinely.
Yet Mattis left little in the way of a legacy. He slashed no weapons programs, reformed no wasteful practices, and took little part in shaping the $700 billion–plus defense budget—which is where most secretaries make their imprint—leaving those matters to the deputy secretary, Patrick Shanahan, one of the aerospace executives, mainly from Boeing, that the White House had imposed on him. He did accelerate the destruction of ISIS’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but mainly by loosening the rules of engagement—the restraints on officers in the field—and otherwise following the strategy put in place by the Obama administration (which, by the time Trump took office, had recaptured half of ISIS’s territory). And he persuaded Trump to continue abiding by the Iran nuclear deal—at least for a while.
It was a fluke that Mattis became secretary of defense at all. Throughout the 2016 election campaign and after, Trump bellowed that we, as a country, “don’t win anymore.” Hearing that Mattis’s nickname as a commander had been “Mad Dog” (possibly a myth, and in any case a moniker that Mattis hated), Trump assumed he’d have a winner in his cabinet. “We’re going to put in the greatest killers of all time,” he bragged at a rally.
In combat, Mattis had been an aggressive commander, pushing offensives with merciless firepower and relentless speed—during the Iraq war, he drove the First Marine Division toward Baghdad much faster than the training drills had anticipated. But he was also a creative tactician, agile enough to adapt swiftly when his approach met obstacles. (His call sign, CHAOS, was an acronym, dating from his time as a midgrade officer, for “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution.”) During the occupation of Iraq, when the strategy was to win the allegiance of local tribes while fighting the insurgents in their midst, Mattis told his troops,…
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