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Opinion Mattis is walking the Trump tightrope. It’s agonizing to watch.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens as President Donald J. Trump speaks at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When President Trump issues an election-time order to send up to 15,000 troops to confront what many experts say is a nonexistent threat on the U.S.-Mexico border, what should Defense Secretary Jim Mattis do about it?

Mattis’s answer, so far, has been to support the president and mostly keep his mouth shut. He gruffly batted back a reporter’s question Wednesday about whether Trump’s troop deployment order was a political stunt by saying , “We don’t do stunts in this department.” Unfortunately, some of Mattis’s colleagues fear he’s doing just that in implicitly backing Trump’s incendiary talk of an immigrant “invasion” that requires sending active-duty troops.

Watching Mattis walk the Trump tightrope is agonizing. For many Americans, the retired Marine four-star general is the model of a stand-up guy — the sort of independent, experienced leader who can steady the nation in a time of division. But in dealing with Trump, Mattis often takes a seat and quietly accommodates the president’s erratic and divisive rhetoric — evidently believing that it’s better to hold fire and work from inside to sustain sensible policies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Oct. 16 President Trump reassured him of his full support after the president described him as “sort of a Democrat.” (Video: Reuters)

The danger for Mattis now is that he may be losing credibility on both sides. Trump no longer seems to trust him fully, and some Pentagon colleagues wonder why he doesn’t speak out more forcefully about unwise policies. Mattis’s role in the administration is precious, but so is his credibility as a truth teller — which is his ultimate legacy beyond any position or medal.

The border deployment is troubling for Marines of Mattis’s generation because they remember an incident in West Texas in May 1997. As part of a detachment of Marines assisting anti-drug operations, Cpl. Clemente Banuelos shot and killed an 18-year-old American goat herder. Banuelos thought he was returning hostile fire.

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The lesson for military officers back then was that active-duty troops, trained to kill enemies, shouldn’t be used for policing actions — especially in border-security matters that were highly politicized, then as now. It was “an unfortunate use of Marines,” remembers Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, a retired Marine who’s a longtime friend of Mattis.

“Putting them in a domestic situation in which they are armed and on patrol was inappropriate for combat Marines,” he says of the 1997 incident. Newbold says he is confident that Mattis will steer the current deployment to make sure that forces aren’t in direct confrontation. Newbold is especially admired in the military because he retired early in protest from the joint staff in 2002 because he regarded plans for invading Iraq as unwise.

The reluctance to commit troops for fuzzy, politically motivated operations goes deep. Explains Newbold: “One of the things seared into Marines of our generation was the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983. The issue there was whether to use troops in a situation fraught with political overtones, rather than military needs.”

This recurring problem of seeking military solutions to political problems has become acute over the past month, as Trump stoked fears about a caravan of r oughly 3,500 migrants , now nearing central Mexico, who want refugee status in the United States. Trump fumed in an Oct. 29 tweet: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

Mattis was already facing a Trump-quake before the order to deploy troops. The president took a rare public shot at his defense secretary in an Oct. 14 interview on CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” saying that Mattis was “sort of a Democrat” and that “he may leave” his post.

Mattis scrambled to affirm his loyalty. “I’m on his team,” he told reporters traveling with him a day later. “We have never talked about me leaving.” Mattis said that Trump had called him after the “60 Minutes” interview with the reassuring message: “I’m with you 100 percent.”

Mattis isn’t the only Marine whose acquiescence worries some Pentagon insiders. As the Defense Department moved this week to deploy an initial force of 7,000 troops, several top former officials questioned the silence of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “At some point, the chairman needs to speak up,” said one retired four-star, who like others described the border deployment as “a complete waste of time and money, and purely political.”

Mattis is a national asset, and the country is lucky to have his solid judgment at the Pentagon. No sensible person would want him to leave the job, but that’s partly because people believe he will speak out if the military is being misused for political purposes. With the spurious border deployment, that red line is close.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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