My previous post focused on the unnoticed irony involved in the appointment of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, given the Obama administration’s treatment of him when he was head of the U.S. Central Command. But the Mattis story also underscores two other themes articulated in a number of earlier posts. The first point regards the utter disingenuousness of President Obama’s once-regular threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The second is about the dysfunctional character of the Obama national security process.
A recent Washington Post report about the relationship between General Mattis and the Obama White House emphasizes the overriding priority Mr. Obama put on reaching an accommodation with Iran over its atomic ambitions. In the summer of 2011, Mattis proposed to undertake a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the causalities Tehran-backed militias were inflicting on U.S. forces in Iraq. The plan reportedly prompted “heated discussions” in Washington that “stretched out for weeks” before it was ultimately rejected by President Obama. As the newspaper notes, Mattis concluded from the episode that “Obama White House was unwilling to take the fight directly to the Iranians, even when they drew American blood.”
More ructions between Mattis and the White House soon followed. A second “heated debate” took place during late 2011 and early 2012 when Mattis asked for contingent permission to take preemptive action against any Iranian attempt to mine the strategically-critical Strait of Hormuz. As the Obama team began to engage in multilateral talks with Iran in the summer of 2012, Mattis further raised hackles by “relentlessly [drilling] the U.S. military’s war plan for Iran” and by emphasizing in his reports to Washington the destabilizing role Tehran was playing in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.
By early 2013, tensions had grown such that Mattis was unceremoniously removed from his post. Although the Obama administration did not present his ouster as a rebuke, Mattis is reportedly convinced that “he had been dismissed early for running afoul of the White House.” Dennis Ross, who was then Obama’s point person on Iran policy, is also quoted in the newspaper as saying:
It was a kind of culture clash. There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative. And as time went by, this became increasingly less acceptable to them [emphasis added].
It is, of course, a president’s prerogative to choose his own military commanders and dictate the perimeters of their conduct. But note the striking disjunction between what was going on behind the scenes with Mattis and what Mr. Obama was publicly saying in 2012. In that year’s State of the Union address, the president stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. Obama then followed this up with a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”
This blog has long been suspicious (see here and here) of the sincerity of the threats President Obama was making at this time about his willingness to undertake military action, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear program. The Washington Post report further reinforces these doubts.
The Mattis story also exemplifies a regular criticism made about the Obama policy-making process – that his national security inner team was not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news. Commenting on Mattis’s ouster from CENTCOM, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed at the time that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”
A number of previous posts (here, here, here and here) have detailed the Obama White House’s intolerance of critical advice, even when it came from inside the administration. And the Washington Post article bolsters this point, quoting Leon E. Panetta, who was Defense Secretary at the time, as saying about the debate triggered by Mattis’s plans for retaliating against Iran:
There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive. But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions [emphasis added].
Senate Democrats heaped high praise on Mattis during his confirmation hearing because they saw his experience as something that will add stability and balance to the new Trump team. But they showed no awareness that his story also illuminates the real deficiencies of President Obama’s national security policies.