It has been over a year since retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis took the oath of office as secretary of defense.
Despite what his old callsign of “Chaos” implies, which actually stands for Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution, and while it was made tongue-in-cheek at the time, it brings a mantra that many in the military and civilian population hoped Mattis would take with him to his new job.
Approved overwhelmingly for the Cabinet position — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was the sole dissenting vote and who did not respond to multiple requests for comment — the majority thinking in “the Swamp” was that Mattis would be one of the best in Trump's administration.
His first year has been marked with significant accomplishments, and he continues to enjoy being the most popular member of Trump's Cabinet. IJR was able to get comments from members of Congress and others to see how they think he has done so far.
If there's one thing members of Congress can agree on, it's that Mattis has successfully overseen the near-destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who also has the distinction of being a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves, told IJR he doesn't know why the press hasn't been all over the success of America's campaign to not just contain ISIS but completely eradicate them.
He credits the victories to the troops on the ground being reinforced by Mattis's “warrior ethos” style of leadership:
“[Mattis] talks about that as a campaign of annihilation, not containment, but annihilation, and those kind of frank, clear directives provide people with the leadership. [...] He has taken this seriously, but frankly. [...] A lot more needs to be done, can't let the vacuum be filled by the Iranians.”
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told IJR that Mattis's “clear-eyed commitment” to seeing the destruction of ISIS is not something only we see but so do other terrorist groups.
Marine veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pointed to how differently the current administration has dealt with the terror group, as opposed to former President Barack Obama's administration:
“Mattis very simply empowered the commanders on the ground finally, that was it. You had eight years of the wars being micromanaged back here in D.C. and micromanaged in the Pentagon, through the the president, and that's changed now.”
Generals on the ground in the Middle East credit the change in leadership style from Trump and Mattis to the rapid success in pushing ISIS out of major cities in Iraq and Syria.
Each of the congressional members stressed that while it is great to see ISIS being pushed out of the territory it once held, the threat is still there.
“It's not going to be gone in the foreseeable future,” Fischer said. “While the armies of ISIS are no longer in the area and they've been pushed out, we still have an ideology that is associated with the Islamic State and that continues to be a threat, not to just this country, but to the world.”
Dana White, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, told IJR the main credit in the wins against ISIS go to the service members who have been fighting on the ground.
The subject of Iran and how to deal with its nuclear program is nothing new to the secretary. It's because of how he wanted to deal with the regime that the Obama administration seemingly forced him into early retirement, saying he was “too hawkish” about the country they desperately wanted to make a deal with.
Fischer: With regards to Iran, it's the same where we see with North Korea. It's a more supporting role that's [Mattis] is playing there because it's in conjunction not just with Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson but also Secretary of Treasury [Steve] Mnuchin with regards to the sanctions. I admire [Mattis] for being able to step into, as a very powerful Cabinet secretary, a supporting role with those two other Cabinet secretaries.
Hunter: Obama was good for the Iranians, plain and simple. Mattis is not and Trump is not, [however] Iran is not an existential threat to the United States right now. North Korea is.
With Trump taking a more-vocal approach in dealing with North Korea, Mattis has taken a supportive role to help Secretary of State Rex Tillerson find a peaceful solution in the region. White said this allows U.S. diplomats to “negotiate from a position of strength.”
Sullivan: [Mattis] is saying the theater of strategic priority is the Asia-Pacific. It's something that should've been long and coming, as someone who represents a state that is in the Asia-Pacific. [...] He has made it a priority. [...]
Hunter: What I want to see Mattis do is make North Korea a “no-ICBM” zone, meaning shoot these puppies on launch. We put in hundred of millions of dollars, and this isn't Mattis, we've put a lot of money into shooting things down as it's coming out of space at mach-five-million our at faces, right? Instead of shooting them down when they're going up in the air. I think that's something they should be really working on and prioritizing. I trust Mattis to do this.
Transgender Military Ban
Trump rocked the nation as he announced, via Twitter, a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military. As often with the president's tweets, it created a news cycle that lasted for days.
In the end, a court ordered the Department of Defense to accept transgender individuals into the military at the beginning of this year. Since the announcement, Mattis has had to walk a fine line of carrying out the president's order, making sure the military's lethality remains the top priority, and preparing to carry out a court order that goes against Trump's directive.
Those interviewed all agreed Mattis has handled the delicate situation just as he does with any other subject, with professionalism:
Sullivan: I think [Mattis] has handled it fine, right. I don't know if that tweet caught him off guard. I think Secretary Mattis has been focused on the war-fighting capability of our military, which I think is the proper focus. At the same time, he's tried to look at this in a respectful manner, which is kinda of his ethos. My view has been ... if you're somebody who can meet the standards ... and don't lower the standards ... if you can meet the standards, then my view has been then let them do it.
Fischer: I think he's approached it with professionalism and I admire him for that. The [Defense Department] is looking at it. The Armed Services Committee is reviewing whatever procedures that we see come out of the final guidance that the [Defense Department] is going to produce for us.
Hunter said he believes people should know what sex they are before they sign up and go through all the stress a service member encounters. He added at the end of the day, it's a deployability issue, rather than a financial one:
“I think [Mattis] is doing fine. Trump said 'no,' Mattis realized it's more complicated than that, there's people in, what do we do with them. You got to make it so that all the military services can coordinate and follow one specified rule on it. I think Trump made the right call and Mattis is implementing his call.”
Mattis appears to have threaded the needle, and even the people advocating against the ban say he's done a fine job in the face of a hot-button issue.
Matt Thorn of OutServe-SLDN told IJR while Mattis can do more for LGBT service members, he has done a good job following through on court orders.
“[He] has been a steady voice of reason and reassurance in an administration that is consumed by chaos,” he said. “There is always room for improvement, and while it would be more beneficial had Secretary Mattis more strongly and publicly defended our LGBT service members, particularly those who identify as transgender, we are pleased that he intervened against the Hartzler Amendment on the National Defense Authorization Act and is executing the court orders to begin enlistment of transgender troops.”
As with any government department, the public wants transparency as a way to ensure departments are carrying out their jobs as efficiently as possible. For the Defense Department, one of the ways to be transparent is in its relationship with the Armed Services Committees:
Sullivan: On the way back from his first trip, I got a call from him on my cellphone. He's in the air, saying “Hey senator, I'm just coming back. I know [the Asia-Pacific] is an area you care a lot about, let me give you kinda of debrief on some of my meetings and some of my thoughts on the region.” Unclassified of course since it was on a cellphone. So I think that was a needed kinda of adjustment and broader strategy.
Fischer: I think that Secretary Mattis has been very open with the committee [...] He is pretty straightforward and I have seen a definite difference in working with Secretary Mattis this last year than I have in my previous four years in working with two other defense secretaries. [...] What I have found is my staff in contacting the [Defense Department] to get clarification on issues, they have gotten answers. It's a good relationship.
Military Readiness and Morale
During his confirmation hearing, Mattis explained how he was shocked to see the current state of the military's readiness and said he would make it a priority if he was approved to serve:
Fischer: I don't think it has improved, that I think is really due to the opposition we see from the Democrats. If you look at the [National Defense Authorization Act] and it being able to pass unanimously out of committee this year, passed on the floor by 80-some votes in favor of it. Yet we cannot get on appropriations bills and until we are able to pass an authorization, like the NDAA, and then be able take up appropriations bills to fund what we authorized, politics are really putting our military at risk and that's unacceptable. Secretary Mattis has been very up front about that [...] He's done a good job making that case.
Hunter: I think morale has increased because you have a warfighter as secretary of defense and a president that seems a lot more affirming of the military than the previous president.
The senators said Mattis has put in the work to talk with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, pointing to a recent trip he made going to both the Republican and Democratic senate lunches.
In a provided statement, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), also a Marine veteran, said, "Our nation faces a complex and daunting array of challenges and threats, and I share Secretary Mattis’s belief that we must provide the Department of Defense sufficient, timely, and predictable funding to restore our military readiness.”
On the eve of the government shutdown, Mattis unveiled the new National Defense Strategy. One of the biggest takeaways is how the Defense Department is now pivoting to focus on maintaining a competitive military advantage over regular, standing armies, while still doing its part in the war on terror.
“[It] lays out where we're going," White said. "It's important to emphasize the fact that we need to ensure a mindset among the American people and the Congress that in order deal with near-peer competitors — Russia, China — we have to invest. [...] We have to ensure we can win the fights of the future.”
Relationship With the Press
The Trump administration and its relationship with the White House press corps makes headlines on a daily basis. It's not usual to see press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sparring with Jim Acosta or April Ryan and then see stories about the verbal clashes afterward.
While the White House grabs most of the attention, the press' relationship with the Pentagon's public affairs office is, according to a source, “rock bottom.”
A Pentagon-based reporter told IJR the poor relationship is partly the “press corps's fault for not recognizing the signs early on” and wished they were more aggressive with him in the beginning:
“By not pushing back harder initially, we made it easier for the Defense Department to move the goal posts. It is my perception that we played along in that chaotic first year because Mattis, by his reputation, made the Department of Defense seem like one of the few areas of government that would remain steady. Trump's tweets slowly eroded that perception.”
The reporter also said all of the problems, such as a smaller traveling press pool and on-the-record chats instead of more television appearances, “would not matter as much if Mattis had an effective press operation backing him up.”
Despite all of this, the reporter added the press corps genuinely wants the public affairs office to succeed because “our missions are inextricably linked, even if there are different outcomes.”
Speaking firsthand, I saw the symptoms when I visited the “Correspondents Corridor” of the Pentagon on the Friday before the government shutdown. I overheard a rather loud venting from reporters who were frustrated because they were not allowed to be present when Mattis welcomed Trump to the military installation.
Outside observers theorize top Pentagon officials “have constricted their press engagement in acts of self-preservation.”
First, emphasizing the reporters at the Pentagon are the “most professional press corps in this city,” White, the individual in charge of public affairs at the Pentagon, said the difference in press relations have been mainly because the leadership team has only just been filled in recent weeks. “There haven't been enough people to go around,” she said.
White said Mattis is very busy and “there are only 24 hours in a day and he works pretty much everyone of them,” but, depending on his travel schedule, he talks to reporters at the “Correspondents Corridor” at least once a week.
She also pointed out Mattis is in a Cabinet position that is usually filled with politicians who are used to focusing on raising and maintaining their public profile, whereas he is mainly focused on his job.
The relationship is compounded by the fact there have been instances throughout the year when some outlets have either misrepresented his words or have gotten mad at him for talking to a high school newspaper reporter.
“He's got a real busy job right now,” Sullivan said. “Certainly one of the most important jobs in the country, if not the world. I think it's always in the interest of the leadership at DoD or other federal agencies to have continual outreach to the Congress.”
Fischer: I hope that he continues to be honest with Congress about the need to address readiness, to address shortfalls that we're looking at. Dealing with the men and women that serve this country, to make sure they are taken care of. [...] Readiness is a big issue and I hope he that continues to be forthright. I hope he continues to challenge Congress, Republicans and Democrats, about meeting these needs that are so important for our military and national security.
Hunter praised Mattis for leading the Pentagon's first-ever audit: “They've never had an audit, so we've assumed we know where the money needs to go without ever knowing where the money's been going, so that finally changes [...] I think he'd ought to be proud of that.”
White: I think the secretary would say the U.S. military, and it is the U.S. military, who works for the American people, who are ready to fight tonight and that we will defend this country and our partners. That's what we exist to do; to work for them, to ensure their security and their prosperity.
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