The crude, small-minded debate and the candidates’ attachment to falsehoods (e.g. we are “losing” at trade) and inflaming the public (on everything from immigration to bathrooms) in the GOP presidential race leave one wondering whether any of them are up for the job of leading a superpower facing domestic and foreign challenges. The candidates seem, well, petty and small.
Someone who is neither is retired general James Mattis, who served as the head of Central Command (“Centcom”) from 2010 to 2013. In his 44 years in the military he also commanded the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He served in the first Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. According to his biography, “He also served as both NATO’s supreme allied commander and commander of the United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command, commander of the First Marine Division during the initial attack and subsequent stability operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as executive secretary to Secretaries of Defense William Cohen and William Perry.” He is also widely praised as a scholar who totes around “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius. As one report put it:
Though many in the media refer to his nickname “Mad Dog,” the most appropriate sobriquet is “The Warrior Monk.” It’s well deserved, for he has devoted his life to studying and fighting war. I’ve heard him quote from memory Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Ulysses S. Grant, Jubal Early, George Patton, Kipling, Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Holy Bible.
He is now a scholar with the Hoover Institution, where we can attest from several visits, he is as beloved and respected as he was in the military. He is a witty, engaging raconteur who thinks about the big picture. What is America’s role in the world? What are our objectives in the Middle East?
Mattis appeared last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He put the focus directly on Iran. “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” he said. “For all the talk of ISIS and al-Qaeda everywhere right now … they’re a very serious threat. But nothing is as serious in the long term enduring ramifications, in terms of stability and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there, than Iran.” He went on to explain that, while flawed, the Iran deal “fell short,” and he predicted Iran will cheat, colorfully describing the regime as “not a nation state, but a revolutionary cause intent on mayhem.” He urged Congress to set up a joint oversight committee and chided the president for denigrating our allies. Asked about a presidential run, he said he hadn’t thought about it.
Many others have been thinking about it, however. There is an active draft movement underway, which has funding lined up if Mattis can be persuaded to run. “Mattis is a pillar of character and integrity in a race that’s devoid of those virtues. He’s a strong leader in a world where everyone, allies and enemies alike, question American leadership. And at the end of the day, he’s just a damn good man,” John Noonan, who previously worked for House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and on the Jeb Bush campaign, told me. “Polls consistently show deep dissatisfaction with the two front-runners, and nearly 60 percent of Americans think a third political party desirable. There has never been more fertile ground for an independent candidate.”
The barriers to an independent run are considerable, including ballot qualification rules, questions as to his views on domestic matters, fundraising and staffing. And, of course, we do not know how willing he is to enter politics. Despite all that, the appeal is undeniable. He is as brilliant as Trump is dull-witted, as engaging as Cruz is abrasive and as candid as Hillary Clinton is secretive. He would mesmerize the media, inspire voters and joyfully knock Trump down to size, calling him out for abject ignorance. The country could and almost surely will do worse.
If Mattis decides to run, both major-party candidates, we suspect, will look small and unserious. (The contrast between Trump, who used bone spurs to avoid military service, and a lifelong military man would be stark.) In fact, Cruz might think of putting Mattis on the ticket as a VP, thereby immediately raising his own own stature, not to mention preempting an independent run. Then again, Mattis is unlikely to accept second billing and would outshine virtually any presidential candidate.
At any rate, for his lifetime of military service, for his ongoing contributions to the critical national security debate and for embodying the best in American leadership, we say thank you and well done, General.