The Slatest

Gen. Mattis Is Trump’s SecDef Pick. Why That Is Very Comforting.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks as he stands with retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Update, 10:00 p.m.: During his speech in Ohio Thursday night, Trump said he will nominate retired General James N. Mattis as secretary of defense.

Original Post: President-elect Donald Trump is set to select Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as secretary of defense according to multiple sources familiar with the decision, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller tweeted that “No decision has been made yet with regard to Secretary of Defense.” But Trump’s son Donald Jr. retweeted a story repeating the Post’s reporting that Mattis has been selected.

Mattis, who has been nicknamed “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” is a retired four-star general revered for his intellect and known for his bravery in combat. If he is selected, he would appear to be a stabilizing force in a position that is required to verify the president’s order to launch nuclear weapons.

During the campaign, Hillary Clinton argued that Trump’s casual talk about using nuclear weapons made him a risky commander-in-chief, while a number of former nuclear launch officers took the unprecedented step of writing a letter saying they did not trust him with the nuclear codes.

Mattis already seems to be having an effect on Trump. After speaking with Mattis, Trump told the New York Times that he was very impressed and might even rethink his position on torture, which he advocated using throughout the campaign. Here’s what Trump said:

General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said — I was surprised — he said, “I’ve never found it to be useful.” He said, “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” And I was very impressed by that answer.

As Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote at the time, the answer—while still demonstrating a total ignorance about the rule of law and the general opinions of military leaders—at least “suggests that Trump can be reasoned with, or at least that he can be talked down from some of his worst impulses as long as the messenger is a guy who’s killed a lot of people, is nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ and comes equipped with some snappy one-liners.”

The Post offered more Mattis’s resume and his potential foreign policy views:

Mattis, 66, retired as the chief of U.S. Central Command in spring 2013 after serving more than four decades in the Marine Corps. He is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation, serving as a strategic thinker while occasionally drawing rebukes for his aggressive talk. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University.

Like Trump, Mattis favors a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Mattis is also known for forthrightness that sometimes bordered on impoliticness. In 2005, he was criticized for saying this:

You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.

At the time Mattis’ commander praised him generally for his candor and passion, and said that Mattis in that instance “agree[d] he should have chosen his words more carefully.”

John Dickerson wrote multiple excellent profiles of Mattis for Slate in 2010. In one piece he wrote this:

Mattis is also known for his mouth. He is a jokester in person and also blunt. In the spring of 2003, in the first of his meetings with recently defeated Iraqi military leaders he famously said: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

But in another profile, Dickerson described how Mattis was one of the authors of the U.S. military’s revamped counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and had taken great pains to foster stronger relationships with the Iraqis.

The second profile is worth reading in full, but here is a key portion that describes Mattis’ approach to war:

Mattis was at Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego when the call came to return to Al-Anbar. His first response was to turn to his library for a solution to the changing war in Iraq. What at first seems new becomes familiar by historical analogy. Instead of starting from scratch, he looked to apply the lessons of previous counterinsurgencies in Algeria, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Among his key texts was the classic Marines 1940 Small Wars Manual which outlined principles for identifying and fighting an insurgency. The lessons in the reading were clear: The public was the prize. Win over the public and the insurgency loses its base of support. At the time, U.S. forces were locked in a brutal struggle that was alienating Iraqis. The more doors that were kicked in and houses reduced to rubble, the stronger the insurgency grew.

Mattis assigned his officers hundreds of pages of reading, which included news articles about mistakes the Israelis had committed in Lebanon, several accounts of shootings of civilians in Iraq, and T.E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles” about fighting in Arabia. The readings offered two lessons about risk. The first was that the risks of using too much force were greater sometimes than using no force at all. In a struggle to win over the population, collateral damage creates new insurgents with lifetime grudges, creates sympathy in the local population for anyone wanting to hurt Americans, and limits the useful flow of intelligence from potentially sympathetic Iraqis. The second lesson was that in a war for the population, helping restore electrical power or even handing out water can lower the risk of violence more in the long run than rolling tanks down the street.

As his division prepared to ship out, Mattis called in experts in Arab culture to lead cultural sensitivity classes. As Thomas E. Ricks recounts in Fiasco, Marines were taught to remove their sunglasses when talking to Iraqis, and when searching a home, to respect the head of the household by seeking his permission to enter rather than roughing him up. When Mattis led the 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, he had insisted everyone shave as military decorum dictates (and because intelligence reports suggested Iraqis might try to pass themselves off as U.S. forces). Now just months later, he wanted his men to grow mustaches to look more like the people they were working with.

Perhaps more important—given Trump’s promise to ban Muslim immigrants from entering this country and his terrifying calls for collective blame towards Muslims for the terrorist attacks of a few extremists—is Mattis’ stance on anti-Muslim racism. From the Slate profile:

For Mattis, the teaching didn’t stop once the Marines got to the fight. He constantly toured the battlefield to tell stories of Marines who were able to show discretion and cultural sensitivity in moments of high pressure—the Marines who greeted an Iraqi funeral by clearing the street and removing their helmets, or the ones who diffused a street protest by handing out water rather than raising their rifles. He told of a platoon attacked by insurgents in Al-Anbar who, after suffering brutal losses, showed kindness to the civilians caught in the crossfire. “They had just finished scraping up their buddies off the deck but showed the people respect,” he says. “Those were Marines the enemy didn’t succeed in turning into racists who hated everyone.” In other words, Mattis called on his troops to accept more immediate risks—to not shoot, to remove helmets—in order to plant seeds for future peace.

If Mattis is selected, hopefully he will provide a counterbalance to the explicit Islamophobia of Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn. His selection would be a very comforting addition to a cabinet that has not included many so far.