Why James Mattis could be an ‘awkward fit’ for the Trump administration

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U.S. Marine Corps four-star general James Mattis arrives to address at the pre-trial hearing of Marine Corps Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich at Camp Pendleton, California U.S in a March 22, 2010 file photo.  REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files - RTSUDP4

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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, who is the man President-elect Trump has picked to be his secretary of defense? What’s his track record, and how does he think the United States should confront the threats that it faces?

For that, we turn to two who know retired Gen. Mattis well. Steve Simon was the senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He’s now a visiting professor of history at Amherst College. And Michael Gordon, he has covered General Mattis as a reporter at The New York Times. For years, Gordon covered the Pentagon, and now the State Department.

And we welcome both of you to the “NewsHour.”

Let me start with you, Michael Gordon. Tell us what you know about James Mattis, beyond what we reported a moment ago.

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Well, he’s certainly an unconventional choice for secretary of defense, simply because he’s only been out of the military for three years.

He’s been a Marine in some of the — a Marine commander in the hottest wars that we have had over the past 10 years, Iraq, Afghanistan, and ran the Central Command, which oversees both those wars. And that’s a position that also involved him with a lot of diplomacy in the region, I think.

But he’s famous also for a lot of his Mattis-isms, his kind of sayings. I remember, when I was in Barwana, Iraq, there was a sign on one of the outposts that said, “Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

I mean, that pretty much expresses I think Mattis’ approach. He was prepared to use violence to achieve ends in war, but he also sought to work with the population and to, you know, constrain the violence as much as possible, which wasn’t always easy in an environment like Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Simon, what would you add to that, and where did this nickname “Mad Dog” come from?

STEVE SIMON, Former National Security Council Staffer: Well, look, I have never seen him in combat, so I don’t know how mad a dog he can be, but certainly in his capacity as commander and as a senior U.S. official dealing with national security issues, I never saw him as anything less than self-possessed and having a cool head.

So, I’m not really sure where that epithet comes from. He’s also known by soldiers who worked with him and for him as the warrior monk because he does have a somewhat monkish temperament. You know, he’s in some ways really into, you know, self-denial and focusing on his troops.

And that has won him a great deal of loyalty, which will stand him in good stead if he’s confirmed by Congress as secretary of defense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gordon, you said a moment ago he’s prepared to use violence, even as he cares about the troops. And as a leader, one would expect that he would.

But what is his view of the role of the military in carrying out foreign policy?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, as Steve pointed out, he’s not a one-sided person. Every military person has to execute military operations, which means you have to fight.

And fight to Baghdad or fighting in Afghanistan, all these environments wasn’t easy. And he’s also famous of his study of military history, his thousands of books, the fact that he claims not to own a television. That’s where the warrior monk comes from.

But he has some views on foreign policy that really put him, I think, in the mainstream. For example, he doesn’t want to rip up the Iran agreement. He’s criticized the agreement. He said he wished it would impose stricter constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. But he said just walking away from it would work against American interests, that the allies would never go along with that. He’s against torture. And president-elect Trump has remarked on that.

He has argued against using that. He argues that it’s simply not effective. And he’s wary of Russia, which, you know, president-elect Trump, at times, has implied that he’s sympathetic with Vladimir Putin or might want to work together with Vladimir Putin in Syria. I think Mattis would be extremely skeptical of that kind of approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, fill in more of that picture, Steve Simon. How do you see Mattis aligning with what we know of what Donald Trump thinks?

STEVE SIMON: Well, he’s a bit of an awkward fit, primarily, I think, because he does support U.S. compliance with the deal negotiated with Iran to contain its nuclear program and to block its pathway towards a bomb.

He has referred to it as providing what he’s called a nuclear pause, but not a nuclear halt, and said, in effect, a pause is better than nothing.

Where he does differ, I think, from the outgoing administration is his view that, even as the United States maintains its commitment to the deal it negotiated, that it pushes back on Iran’s regional maneuvers. And I think, and, by that, Jim Mattis would point to do things.

One is Syria, where the Iranians are very, very deeply involved. And the other is in Iraq, where the Iranians gained a great deal of influence after the U.S. overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. And I think, as commander of Central Command, General Mattis is probably quite sensitive to the fact that many of the deaths of U.S. servicemen in Iraq were attributable to weapons designed or provided by Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about — Michael Gordon, people are talking, of course, about the fact that he’s going to — if he’s confirmed, he’s going to have to have this exemption from the law that says military people who are few than seven years out of the military can’t be secretary of defense.

How do you see him running that department, coming from the military?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, first of all, I think the waiver will go through. Senator McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, has said he supports it. Senator Gillibrand said she opposes it, but I thinks he has sufficient support.

I think that he has enough experience running large organizations, running the Central Command. He ran the Joint Forces command. That requires a certain amount of bureaucratic capability and finesse. So I think he, in his own mind, understands — I mean, he would be the first person since George Marshall to do this — that there is a responsibility on him to try to run the department as a civilian that he’s only been for three years and not as a military man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Simon, how do you see that? Because there has been this tradition — it’s in law — that someone who’s been in the military recently shouldn’t be running the Pentagon. How do you see him fitting into that?

STEVE SIMON: Well, look, he’s going to have to deal with issues that he hasn’t had to deal with as a combatant commander or a unified commander, R&D, weapons acquisition, large-scale budget issues, you know, personnel issues of an immense scale.

In addition to being a politician in his dealing with Congress in particular, he’s going to have to learn how to deal effectively with a White House staff. That can be a challenge, especially in an administration like the one that’s shaping up, I think.

And he’s going to have to be a diplomat as well. Now, I have seen him work in a diplomatic mode, and I think he’s gifted in that domain. I don’t think he’s going to have a problem there. So, all in all, you know, I would say that he has good prospects for success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Simon, Michael Gordon, as we learn who General James Mattis is, and he heads for confirmation, thank you very much.

MICHAEL GORDON: Thank you.

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