On Dec. 6, after weeks of thinly-veiled hints and outright declarations, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary for his impending administration. Mattis, a retired 41-year veteran of the Marines, last served in 2013 as Commander of U.S. Central Command, which directs U.S. military operations in nearly all territories of the Middle East. Mattis has a long history of both leading direct combat — he commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and devising nuanced military strategy, most notably co-writing the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s manual on counterinsurgency with Gen. David Petraeus.
None of this mattered to Trump.
In the days leading up to Mattis’ nomination, Trump seemed infatuated with the general’s personal reputation, not his policies. Between his tweets and rallies, The Donald referred to Mattis as “Mad Dog,” his unofficial military nickname (which he has never self-referenced), nearly a dozen times. His prolific use of the manly moniker was accompanied by a sense of credulous admiration for the former NATO commander. Trump mentioned nary a policy that he and Mattis agreed upon, instead employing a vocabulary stocked with hollow commendations of the general’s perceived tough, straight-talking demeanor, while barely containing his excitement for his chosen defense secretary’s nomination.
Had Trump conducted a thorough investigation of Mattis’ core ideological principles, however, his impish joy toward “Mad Dog” would have disappeared faster than the word slavery from a Texas history textbook. Nearly every foreign policy stance Mattis has publicly embraced directly contrasts Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Mattis has asserted that a continuation of Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will inevitably lead to apartheid; Trump has publicly endorsed settlement expansion. Mattis has criticized the Iran Nuclear Deal while also advocating for its prolongation; Trump has promised to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement on Day 1. Mattis understands the complex nature of an effective counterinsurgency campaign, and insists on the minimization of civilian casualties and use of multilateral community engagement; Trump has advocated for murdering the families of suspected terrorists. Mattis has described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “delusional,” and the dictator of a failing empire in social, economic and military decline; Trump has called Putin a “strong” leader, and has contended that if Putin “says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”
While Trump has yet to recognize this vast crater of differences between him and the general, others have taken notice. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, an Iraq war veteran who served under Gen. Mattis while deployed in the Marines, recounted in a USA TODAY op-ed how Mattis had once “planned to duct tape Saddam Hussein to the front of the truck when we got to Baghdad and drive around the city,” a story swamped in just the sort of “bravado” which caught Trump’s eye. However, “[a]midst a cabinet that is shaping up to be nearly as
unqualified as our new president,” the congressman mused how “Mattis stands out as a remarkably qualified leader, and I know he is someone who will actually stand up to President Trump,” asserting that Democrats should confirm the general’s appointment “before Trump realizes this himself.”
In the face of such testimony, it seems Trump must have venerated the general’s swagger and persona so enthusiastically that he impetuously hired a man whose ideology more closely aligns with the Obama Doctrine than his own America First dogma. This sets a dangerous Trump administration precedent: selecting cabinet members based on their ability to draw attention, and not their policy alignment. As a result, we should all be thankful Mattis narrowly overcame Trump’s second choice appointee, the shiny cat toy Steve Bannon jangles to keep him engaged during meetings.
Reuven Bank, Opinion Editor, is a sophomore ecology and evolution major. He can be reached at email@example.com.