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Trump confirms Mattis as his pick for defense secretary

In a Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J.

CAROLYN KASTE/AP

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 1, 2016

WASHINGTON —  President-elect Donald Trump announced Thursday he will nominate retired Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as the next secretary of defense.

Trump made the announcement at a rally in Cincinnati, calling Mattis "the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton of our time."

The choice would bring a seasoned, widely respected battlefield commander and strong critic of Iran and Russia to the military’s top civilian position.

Congress will have to approve a waiver because Mattis, who retired in 2013, has not been out of uniform for the required seven years.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mattis, 66, who fashioned a reputation among Marines as a warrior monk during four decades of infantry leadership that included the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would replace Ash Carter, a physicist, academic and longtime Pentagon civilian who was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the Defense Department in 2015.

Trump chose Mattis for the post after nominating three members of his administration’s national security team two weeks ago. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican from Alabama, was picked to become attorney general; retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a strong Trump ally and critic of radical Islam, will be national security adviser, and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., was tapped for CIA director.

Trump called Mattis “the real deal” and a “true general’s general” in recent tweets.

The president-elect’s other choices have riled some Democrats but Mattis is likely to draw support from across the political spectrum, including from rank-and-file Marines. Military historian Max Boot, a conservative who was a relentless critic of Trump during the election campaign, has praised Mattis as one of the top military stars of his generation.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has endorsed Mattis, saying he is one of the finest military officers of his generation and inspires special admiration among servicemembers.

“His integrity is unshakable and unquestionable, and he has earned his knowledge and experience the old-fashioned way -- in the crucible of our nation’s defense and the service of heroes,” McCain said in a released statement.

Since his retirement in 2013, Mattis has often warned Iran poses a top security threat and called Russia a predatory state, which might be at odds with Trump and he moves toward a closer, collaborative relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The international system as we know it -- and as we created it -- is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged,” Mattis wrote in an article that he co-authored in August. “These forces include predatory states that prize their own sovereignty but destroy that of others — Russia, China and Iran.”

He also laid out his criticism of American foreign policy in the article, giving some insight into how he might act as defense secretary.

“America’s historic strengths have buffered us against many of the consequences of operating without a strategy, but it is a costly way to do business. It has caused us to fight wars we could have avoided, and to lose wars we ought to have won,” Mattis wrote. “It has resulted in tactical successes that do not add up to strategic victories and has cost our country soldiers’ and diplomats’ lives, national treasure and global credibility.”

Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 after leading U.S. Central Command, was known during his military service for his quotable and colorful battlefield advice to Marines – language that also ruffled feathers at times.

“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f-- with me, I’ll kill you all,” he reportedly told Iraqi tribal leaders as the United States was trying to quell sectarian violence after the 2003 invasion.

After leading troops in Afghanistan after 9/11, Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq and later during the first battle of Fallujah in 2004, which became pivotal as Iraq descending into a sectarian insurgency.

Mattis made news headlines during the Iraq invasion when he suddenly relieved Marine Col. Joe Dowdy of battlefield command after Dowdy made a dash with his forces toward Baghdad.

Despite his tough talk, Mattis often appealed to infantry Marines to use critical thinking – famously once saying the Power Point presentations are making the military stupid -- and telling them to consider how the use of violence can turn local populations against U.S. forces.

“You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon,” he wrote in 2003 letter to the 1st Marine Division.

Mattis experienced the difficulty of winning Iraqi hearts and minds firsthand in 2004 after a U.S. strike on a gathering at an Iraqi village caused controversy. Witnesses said the gathering was actually a wedding party where up to 45 civilians were killed but the U.S. military in Iraq denied the claim, saying it was a foreign fighter safe house.

“How many people go to the middle of the desert ... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naïve,” Mattis said at the time, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Mattis acknowledged and fostered a hard-edged ethos for Marines in wartime. While talking to Marines in San Diego in 2005, he criticized the treatment and abuse of women in Afghanistan and said men who commit the violence “ain’t got no manhood left anyway” and deserve to be killed.

“Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot,” he said, according to CNN. “It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”

The comment caused some laughter from the crowd of Marines at the time and raised some public eyebrows from people who thought it was overly harsh, CNN reported. The Marine commandant at the time said he spoke with Mattis about choosing his words more wisely but backed the lieutenant general, calling Mattis “one of this country’s bravest and most experienced military leaders.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis speaks during an awards ceremony in Arlington, Va., on Feb. 22, 2014.
MALLORY S. VANDERSCHAN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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