By Kashish Parpiani
In view of the recent cancellation of the highly anticipated Indo-US 2+2 dialogue for the second time, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote to India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with a message of reassurance. According to reports, Mattis’ letter bore reassurances about the cancellation not implying a downscaling to “a lower priority” of the Indo-US relationship. The letter reportedly even went on to underscore the “trajectory of the strategic partnership” between New Delhi and Washington to remain unaffected by the sudden cancellation of the dialogue.
Although the US Defense Secretary’s gesture to reach out with the letter cannot be undermined, recently some serious questions have emerged over Mattis’ future in the Trump administration. And by that extension, if the former four-star military general-turned-US Secretary of Defense still hones enough currency to matter in Trump’s praxis of American foreign policy.
Whereas, Mattis has been on-record in his opposition to “add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” Other such divergent areas include, the president’s declaration to halt exercises with South Korea at the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, the president raising the spectre of reducing US troop presence in Germany, and announcing an imminent cessation of US activities in Syria.
These recent developments that reportedly ran contrary to Mattis’ prescriptions to the president, have led many like former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to pointedly observe, that Mattis has now been relegated to being “a lonely warrior in this administration.”
However, according to a survey conducted earlier this year, over one-third of registered voters approve of Mattis’ performance as Secretary of Defense — rendering him to lead “the pack as the most-approved-of member of President Trump’s Cabinet.” Plus, around the world, Mattis continues to be seen as a bankable member of the Trump administration. As former assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet puts it, Mattis stands “without question” as “the most respected person in President Trump’s Cabinet.”
So, what explains the recent inconsistencies between Mattis’ high stature and his supposedly declining influence in the Trump administration?
Back in the early days of the Trump administration, the real-estate mogul-turned-US Commander-in-Chief seemed to bear grim prospects for the future of the United States’ role in the world. However, the presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis was seen as a beacon of sobering presence in the Trump circle. Collectively termed as the ‘Axis of Adults’ by foreign policy elites in the US Congress, media, and academia, the trio oversaw some key successes in tempering Trump’s unique approaches to American international relations. Some of their successes encompassed having Trump renege on his campaign promises to have a continued US military engagement in Afghanistan, adopting the Reaganesque ‘Peace Through Strength’ model to acquire an unprecedented raise in US military spending, and occasionally playing nice with US allies in case of achieving multilateral goals like tightening the sanctions noose (‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign) on North Korea.
However, eventually reports ran awash of Trump catching up to that scheme. According to some reports, in a quest to then break the mould of those advisers “managing” him, President Trump sought the “cashiering” of Tillerson and McMaster.
According to Thomas Wright, their ouster “can be seen as the fulfilment of his (Trump’s) preternatural need to have things his own way, no matter the advice of more seasoned players on the world stage.”
Hence, in recent times, Mattis seems to have tempered his defense of American internationalism in accordance with the Trumpian outlook.
For instance, recently the Secretary of Defense joined the President in stressing on greater burden sharing amongst the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners. In a letter to the British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, Mattis struck a Trumpian tone to call on London to raise defence spending to a level “beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.” In the letter, Mattis also warned Paris could replace London as Washington’s closest European security ally.
This caused many in the foreign policy circles to collectively gasp, and deem Mattis to be losing ground to Trump. However, Mattis has “lost” battles against Trump before. For instance, although Mattis was an ardent Iran hawk in the years past with respect to the Iran deal, upon assuming the office of the Secretary of Defense, he openly broke from his Commander-in-Chief. Not only did Mattis deem staying in the Iran nuclear deal to be in US national interest, he also defended the deal’s provisions as encompassing “pretty robust” oversight mechanisms on Iran’s activities.
However, Mattis’ relevance goes beyond such instances of him finding his prescriptions to be on the diagonally opposite end of Trump’s decisions. Largely, the Secretary of Defense seems to have been engaged to “hold the line” –– to draw on Mattis’ own advice to US troops in Jordan, with respect to tempering the effects of Trump’s status quo-altering foreign policy moves on America’s traditional relationships.
Last year, when President Trump refused to underscore the United States’ commitment to Article 5, –– NATO’s bedrock principle of an attack on one being an attack on all –– Secretary Mattis assuaged allies’ concerns with a simple, “Bear with us.” Speaking a few days after Trump’s visit to the NATO headquarters, Mattis affirmed, “We will still be there, and we will be there with you.”
Notably, in just the past few months, Secretary Mattis and others like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford have led or hosted crucial visits to/from American allied nations such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Thailand, and Japan. Further, in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit that raised the spectre of a diminished US presence in the Indo-Pacific region, Secretary Mattis was quick to embark on a trip to the region (interestingly, his seventh visit to the region as Secretary of Defense) to assuage alliance abandonment concerns. Most notably, in Japan, the Secretary iterated Washington’s support for spearing the Japanese abductees issue with Pyongyang, and assured Tokyo of “the longstanding alliance” between Japan and the United States as continuing to be “firm.”
Further, theses “reassurances” don’t just encompass Mattis’ soothing rhetoric. The Secretary has also pursued policies at the Department of Defense to make sure the United States is seen as a security partner that puts real dollars where its mouth is.
Consider this week’s NATO summit for instance. As President Trump singled out Germany’s Angela Merkel, and raved about NATO partners’ asymmetrical defense contributions, the Secretary of Defense had deftly worked behind the scenes to “hold the line.” Mattis has been successful in securing an agreement on a plan known as the 30-30-30-30 –– which “would require NATO to have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 ships ready to deploy within 30 days of being put on alert.” Plus, the Secretary’s tenure has also overseen an impressive “91 percent increase in Pentagon funding requests for the US military’s European Deterrence Initiative, which was created to help reassure nervous European allies after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.”
Further, Mattis has also been pivotal in case of nurturing Washington’s nascent partnerships with countries like India. The Secretary has been the lead voice on according necessary waivers to circumvent the Trump administration’s “great power competition”-inspired sanctions on Russia from harming long-term interests with New Delhi. If successful, Mattis’ advocacy can be crucial in circumventing the dire consequences of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to Indian interests.
In addition, for India, Mattis’ continued presence in the Trump administration holds promise beyond his advocacy of waivers. At a time when New Delhi is mulling crucial Indo-US defense interoperability decisions such as, signing onto the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and posting an Indian Military Liaison Officer at the newly christened Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, questions over the United States’ credibility as a security partner under Trump are bound to arise. Having an experienced former US general like Mattis — who also enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in the US Congress (confirmed 98-1 by the US Senate), at the helm of the US Department of Defense then, is sure to lend credibility to the future prospects of the Indo-US dynamic beyond the Trump era.
Although for readers of US civil-military relations, overt dependence on former generals is rightly worrying. However, in the Trump era, it stands imperative to discount those long-term consequences of having former celebrity generals — as the “adults” in the room, on the sanctity of the principle of the civilian control of the military.
Moreover, in case of an American president who “gravely undervalues what he is giving up” with respect to his dismantling of the US -led world order, the importance of Mattis’ role stands elevated for the success of the president himself. Hence, on the question of Mattis’ future in the administration, former NSC official Richard Fontaine is perhaps on-point in professing, “If the president is lucky, Mattis will stay in place.”