JAMES MATTIS, Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of defence, has held many titles in his long career in the American military. He has commanded front-line troops in Afghanistan, run a major NATO command, and overseen all American military personnel in the Middle East. But there is a new role that many appear eager to cast him in: saviour of American foreign policy in the Trump era. This sentiment was much in display at last week’s Senate hearings on the role of civilian control of the military.
The hearing was called at the behest of Democrats, some of whom were irked by Republican efforts to expedite a waiver to a law that forbids retired generals from serving as secretary within seven years of wearing a uniform. Since the creation of the position of secretary of defence in 1947, the Congress has only waived this requirement once, in 1950, during the Korean War, to permit the former secretary of state and five-star General George C. Marshall to serve in the role.
One of the expert witnesses called last week, Eliot Cohen, a former Bush-era State Department official and self-described “ring leader” of Republican foreign policy experts who campaigned openly against Mr Trump, testified that while he was strongly opposed to the idea of former generals taking the army’s top civilian post, he favoured Mr Mattis largely because of the particular nature of the president-elect. A Secretary Mattis, he said, “would be a stabilising and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening, and over time, helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction”.
It was perhaps similar reasoning that led Ash Carter, Mr Mattis’s would-be predecessor, to praise the retired general. Other Democrats have also pitched in with words of support for Mr Mattis. Seth Moulton, an Iraq war veteran and Democratic congressman from reliably blue-Massachusetts, wrote an op-ed in USA Today subtitled: “Democrats should make him Defence secretary before Trump changes his mind.”
The chorus of praise has rung out on the other side of the Atlantic, too. Michael Fallon, Britain’s defence secretary, took the unusual step of publicly praising Mattis’s selection before any confirmation hearings had begun. When asked in interviews about potential conflicts between Britain and some of the more iconoclastic policies broached by Mr Trump, Mr Fallon has repeatedly downplayed potential clashes, citing Mr Mattis as evidence of continuity in key strategic areas, such as working with NATO, an alliance Mr Trump has at times disparaged, and standing up to Russia.
Earlier this month, speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations, a hotbed of traditionalist foreign policy, in Washington, DC , Adrian Bradshaw, a British general and the deputy military commander of NATO, praised Mr Mattis’s judgment and experience and said that: “An incoming administration could do a lot worse than to listen very carefully to his advice.”
It is easy to understand by so many regard Mr Mattis as a steadying force. Unlike the president-elect who is keen on the brevity afforded by Twitter, the general is an avid writer and reader, who is said carry a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”. He is well versed in working within America’s traditional alliance systems. He is no fan of the Kremlin, testifying before his confirmation hearing last week that there’s an “increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia”.
But some who know Mattis well are cautioning against the messianic view of the former general with the military call-sign “Chaos.” Kori Shake, another former Bush-era national security official, who co-edited a book on civilian-military relations with Mr Mattis, took to Twitter this month to downplay the grand expectations being hoisted upon him. “Expectation Mattis will fix foreign policy unreasonable [because] it’s not the SECDEF’s primary job,” she wrote. She also noted that Mr Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a retired general whose views are more closely aligned with those of the president-elect, would be likely to have the “last word” on policy due to his influence over the president.
Mr Mattis is not the only former general upon whom security policy traditionalists are hanging their hopes. Claire McCaskill, the top ranking Democrat on the committee responsible for Homeland Security, signalled that she would be backing Trump’s pick John Kelly, another retired US Marine general. “I’m confident he will be a moderating influence on the incoming administration,” she said. It was no doubt such a desire to introduce a check on Mr Trump that led members of the Senate to put aside their concerns about civilian control of the military and vote overwhelmingly to wave Mr Mattis through on January 13th, with 81 votes in favour to 17 against.