Mattis likely to push for closer cooperation with US allies in Middle East
Washington - Retired US Marine Corps general James Mattis, US President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of Defense, is likely to advocate closer cooperation between Washington and its allies in the Middle East, especially in countering Iran.
Trump called Mattis, a 66-year-old who served in the Marine Corps from 1969-2013, “the closest thing we have to general George Patton”, the second world war-era US Army general who led US troops against Nazi Germany in Africa and Europe. As former head of the US Central Command, Mattis has years of experience in Middle East matters.
He will require a waiver from Congress to serve as Defense secretary because he retired from the military three years ago. A 1947 law requires that the secretary of Defense cannot have served in the military during the previous seven years unless a waiver is granted. Some Democrats in the US Senate have signalled they will block the waiver.
Despite his reputation for toughness — he reportedly once said that it was “fun to shoot some people” — Mattis is seen as a strategist who looks beyond military force and is acutely aware of the necessity to form alliances in international affairs.
Some observers say Mattis could play a calming role in the foreign policy of a president with an impulsive personality but without deep knowledge of the Middle East. “He could have a steadying influence” on Trump, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, said.
Owen Daniels, an analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said Mattis had demonstrated an ability to influence Trump by telling him that waterboarding, a torture technique banned by the United States but supported by Trump during the campaign, was not an effective tool in the fight against terrorists. Trump said he was impressed by what Mattis said. “That shows that Trump is mouldable in certain issues,” Daniels said.
While Mattis and Trump agree that Iran is the greatest threat to the Middle East, the two do not agree on everything. In a speech in April at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mattis offered a sober outlook for the region, a far cry from Trump’s campaign promises of quick and decisive victories over the Islamic State (ISIS) and other adversaries.
“The future is going to be ghastly,” Mattis said, and the new president would inherit “a mess”. Political vacuums in the region “seem to be filled by either terrorists or by Iran or their surrogates or by Russia”, he said.
Mattis pointed to Iran as the main problem. “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” Mattis said. The US should recognise Iran not as a nation-state but as “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem”.
Mattis said Washington should keep Israel strong — although he is critical of Israeli settlement policy — and increase cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in areas such as ballistic missile defence integration. He also advocated for a “very robust” US naval presence in the region.
While Trump has suggested he may pull the United States out of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, Mattis said that may not be a good idea. “I believe we would be alone if we did,” he said in the April speech. “Unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.”
Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, said Trump, like every president, would have to make adjustments to bring his campaign promises into line with real-life policies. “He’s in that process now,” Feaver said. Mattis could play a key role in that respect. “Mattis has the trust of Trump,” Feaver said.
Trump has been accused of having isolationist tendencies but Mattis has said there were economic, diplomatic and political reasons for the United States to stay engaged in the Middle East. “No nation on its own can provide security in this world. No nation in a globalised world — actually ever but certainly not today — can do this on its own,” Mattis said in his April speech.
Daniels said Mattis’s positions would be welcomed by GCC members that have been rattled by the Obama administration’s perceived wooing of Iran.
Some analysts, however, question whether Mattis’s focus on Iran as the main security threat in the Middle East would serve US interests. The government in Tehran was being portrayed as “a super enemy of the United States”, said Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at Brown University. This could lead to a “serious escalation” between the United States and Iran, he said, noting that hardliners in Tehran, referring to next year’s presidential election in Iran, were saying that “we need our own Trump”.
With Trump’s inauguration more than a month away, observers cautioned it was difficult to predict what sort of foreign policy the new president would pursue or how much of an influence Mattis would have on Trump.
Kinzer said it was possible that Trump would define his own foreign policy. As for advisers and cabinet members, “We don’t even know if he listens to them,” Kinzer said.