Firing a General For the Sake of a Feasible Strategy

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis accompanied by Afghan commanders in 2009. Image: Lance Cpl. Jeremy Harris, USMC

On January 25th, Marine General James Mattis, the commander of CENTCOM (Central Command), was fired by President Obama. Mattis’s dismissal warrants attention not only because media pundits and Marines alike construe his relief as evidence of strained civil-military relations, but also because it signals a continued commitment to pragmatism in the Obama administration’s strategic priorities.

The rift between the Obama administration and Mattis during his stormy tenure as head of CENTCOM has been evident, despite Mackubin Thomas Owens’s contention that “no general in recent times has represented the military side in the civil-military dialogue better than General James Mattis.” The general frequently “pushed the civilians…hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran.” Others also aver that Mattis’s “hawkish” stance against Iran conflicted with the moderate views of the Obama administration to the point where “on occasion [the general’s] displeasure…spilled into the public record.” To Ricks and Owens, the dismissal of Mattis is worrisome because they believe that the Obama administration has, in effect, shut down “robust, candid discussions” on matters pertaining to strategy by firing the best wartime Marine general. For this reason, Ricks fears that Mattis’ relief will send the unequivocal message to the Marine officers that their dissent will not be tolerated by civilian overseers.

While healthy civil-military discourse is necessary in framing strategy within its proper geopolitical context, both Ricks and Owens may have missed two crucial factors. First, as Owens himself once argued, “military has an obligation to forcefully present its best advice but does not have the right to insist that its advice be followed.”  In this light, one could argue that Obama has finally succeeded in taming the officer corps by making an example out of Mattis. Mattis, however, did not publicly challenge the President or his advisers as Stanley McChrystal had done in 2010. Second, by solely focusing on the tension between the military and the civilians, both Ricks and Owens fail take into consideration President Obama’s pragmatic commitment to the “pivot strategy” in Asia.

In his latest article, Nathan Toronto outlines three factors which may explain the recent shift in the Obama administration’s strategic priorities. They also help to shed light on the sources of the rift between Mattis and Obama’s advisers. First of these is how the United States meets its energy demands. This leads to his second point that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring of 2011, the Obama administration finally understood that it cannot “convince” Islamic fundamentalists “to like America.” Third, these two factors, combined with what he calls “capture-kill technologies,” America’s diplomatic savvy and Special Operations Forces have enabled the United States to “impose its will on its adversaries in a way that is much less obvious.” The above factors are helpful in understanding the tension between Mattis and the Obama administration which surfaced last May when the President rebuffed Mattis’s request for a carrier battle group to the Strait of Hormuz to monitor Iran. As Foreign Policy noted in July last year, caving in to Mattis’s demands for carrier battle groups would have meant that “the Pentagon [might] have to come up with alternate ways of sustaining Mattis’ requirements while meeting growing demands for ships and aircraft in Asia.”

Thus, the firing of Mattis may signal a more flexible approach to America’s geopolitical strategy. While it is true that Iran continues to challenge America’s primacy in the Persian Gulf, its quest for power won’t matter as much in the long run, if the United States can meet its strategic goals in the Middle East by “lead[ing] from behind.” Viewed in this light, the relief of Mattis reflects the Obama administration’s desires to rearrange its strategic priorities by balancing its goals with the existing means. Even Mattis has dutifully hewed to the Obama administration’s shifting strategic priorities when he devised the so-called the “proxy strategy,” whereby Iran’s Sunni neighbors would vie for influence in the Persian Gulf region to deter, if not contain, Iran’s rise as a regional power as the United States prepares to scale down its commitment in the Middle East.

The dismissal of General Mattis is no cause for worry. In his article, “21st Century Eisenhower,” Matthew Schmidt quotes Eisenhower who told the Senate that he had to consider “the very delicate balance between national debt, taxes and expenditures” when he set aside 40% of the defense budget for the Air Force. The implication of the Eisenhower story is clear: Ultimately, civilians must call the shots on matters pertaining to strategy because they alone understand the bigger picture. By relieving a talented but refractory general, President Obama has shown that he remains committed to a feasible geopolitical strategy that will yield favorable outcomes for America’s interests abroad.

Jeong Lee is a freelance blogger who lives in Pusan, South Korea. He has been blogging for two years on International Security issues, and is also a contributing columnist for Americanlivewire.com.

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10 comments to Firing a General For the Sake of a Feasible Strategy by Jeong Lee

  • Tom Kalbacher

    George Marshall on January 7th 1943 told his aide Albert Wedemeyer don’t ever fail to give me your unequivocal expression of your views. You would do me a disservice if you did otherwise. So it really appears Obama intends to surround himself with pliable YES MEN!

  • [...] cuts. It can, however, exercise firmness by “leading from behind” by working with allies and proxies. One such example is that of a “proxy strategy” implemented by General James Mattis whereby [...]

  • [...] cuts. It can, however, exercise firmness by “leading from behind” by working with allies and proxies. One such example is that of a “proxy strategy” implemented by General James Mattis whereby [...]

  • [...] sequestration cuts. It can, however, exercise firmness by “leading from behind” in working with allies and proxies. One such example is that of a “proxy strategy” implemented by General James Mattis, whereby [...]

  • [...] well, I left another comment on the Georgetown Journal article. So, did you watch General Mattis testify before the Senate Committee Armed Services today? He [...]

  • Sam West

    So, did you watch General Mattis testify before the Senate Committee Armed Services today? He talked frankly about Iran, endorsing our current sanctions but also saying they would not stop Iran’s nuclear advancement. That is not “hawkish”, that is pragmatic.

  • @Sam West:

    Judging from your passionate, if sarcastic remarks, it is clear that you revere the man. I take it you are a Marine officer? I may not know him personally, but have read about and watched him carefully. When I watched him on C-SPAN, he appeared respectful towards the Senators. You say that he defended the President during an interview session? Isn’t that the job of a military officer? But the focus of the article is what he said in private and Foreign Policy’s articles and those of The Daily Beast make it abundantly clear that he often clashed with Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser. So you cannot unduly accuse me of “poor” research.

    “Sophomoric?” Not so.

    Now, as to the quote ““does not have the right to insist that its advice be followed.” Those are Mackubin Thomas Owens’s words, not mine. Pay attention to the quotation marks, now. The quote: “on occasion [the general’s] displeasure…spilled into the public record.” That’s from the Daily Beast, formerly Newsweek.

    I will say this. General Mattis was a thinker and an exceptionally gifted combat leader. That much is clear from the fact that he cobbled together the “proxy strategy,”–which I did mention when I wrote that even Mattis has dutifully hewed to the Obama administration’s shifting strategic priorities–coauthored FM 3-24, and spearheaded the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and later Iraq.

    But people often forget that he lost the first Battle of Fallujah back in ’04 and only succeeded in retaking it in the second battle a few months later. Also, the general had a habit of shooting his mouth where unwarranted. Let’s see. Let’s start with “It’s hell of a hoot to shoot some people!” Then, there was “Al-Qaida is dumb” before he got his butt whipped by the Iraqi insurgents in the first Battle of Fallujah. (Whatever happen to “Never underestimate your enemy?!”) “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f– with me, I’ll kill you all.” Finally, just after he spearheaded the invasion into Afghanistan as a BrigGen, he said that “We are now occupiers of Afghanistan.” These are words uttered by someone itching for a fight. But then, again, a man can be both sophisticated and cantankerous at the same time.

    Thank you.

  • [...] at General Mattis’ behest. Marines – they know how to save a buck!My response to Firing a General For the Sake of a Feasible Strategy. I’m betting my comment won’t be published. Kudos to the author if it is. And of course [...]

  • Sam West

    Really? “stormy tenure” Please enlighten me on what has been “stormy” about Mattis’ tenure at CENTCOM. List events please. . . Careful now, I have damn near everything ever written about him or spoken by him in my military archive, as I do most high profile US Marines.

    I have events (see his youtube videos) where he has supported Obama to the questioning audience. Ooops, that kind of goes against what your writing here, and it’s video evidence.

    As well you write: “does not have the right to insist that its advice be followed.” That never happened and never would happen because of the kind of man Mattis is. But you don’t know that because you don’t know anything about him. Have you ever watched him before the Senate or House? No, or you would have witnessed his respect for his civilian superiors.

    Please do some real research, know who you’re talking about before you write. This article is sophomoric at best, and Tom Ricks got it right.

    …and if we have a president who won’t consider all of the ramifications of his actions (as we often do because of the nature of politicians) that president needs to be pushed by someone capable of true critical thinking.

    Plus you and everyone else who writes that he pushed for military action against Iran and characterize him as “hawkish” simply never heard him speak on the matter. You, and the rest of the public, are clueless about what this man’s opinions on Iran actually are, and your writing proves that. Take the time to listen to his speeches of the last 18 months. I’ll make you hunt them down on the internet because you obviously need a primer in how to do research. He never gives his opinion in public and he never would or will. That is the nature of General Mattis.

    If you want speculate, write about someone other than a US Marine because I’ll always have the facts on my Marines and if I come across your article I’ll blast you if you’re wrong.

  • I cordially invite all readers to comment on my article. Thank you.