WASHINTON: Let me state it upfront: I did not request a photo shoot with James Mattis, the US secretary of defence. Nor did he pre-emptively spurn me. That said, the Pentagon chief deserves to be America’s “person of the year”.
In contrast to Donald Trump, who claims to have turned down Time magazine’s photo request for its upcoming person of the year, Mr Mattis does not seek media gratification.
The retired general is a model of sublimating ego to a larger cause. He is the second-most important person in the Trump administration. But for Mr Mattis, we would be sleeping even less soundly at night.
His worth stems from character.
A FIRST CABINET MEETING
At Mr Trump’s first full cabinet meeting in June, principals outbid each other in presidential adulation.
Mike Pence, the vice-president, said it was the greatest honour of his life to serve a man who was “keeping his word to the American people”. Reince Priebus, the then chief of staff, thanked Mr Trump for “the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda”.
Everyone did their best to mimic how a Kim Jong Un cabinet might sound. To be fair, Mr Trump did open the meeting in full Pyongyang mode: “Never has there been a president … who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Mr Trump said. He still has not passed one significant bill.
In that context, Mr Mattis showed guts in stating his actual role: “It is an honour to represent the men and women of the department of defence,” he said. The US military existed so that “our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength”, he added.
He made no mention of Mr Trump.
There — in that White House display — was the kernel of how the Trump presidency has unfolded. The show is all about one man. The others, barring Mr Mattis, are dispensable.
HOLDING THE LINE
Indeed, Mr Trump often taunts his staff about how easily he can fire them. Bullies never respect sycophants. Not once, however, has Mr Trump taken that risk with Mr Mattis. The chances of triggering his resignation would be too high.
But let us suppose he were to leave or to be fired. Indeed, it is plausible at some point. Mr Mattis has contradicted the president on several critical policies.
Mr Trump tweeted on North Korea: “Talking is not the answer!” A few hours later Mr Mattis said: “We are never out of diplomatic solutions. We always look for more.”
When Mr Trump said the Iran nuclear deal was a disaster, Mr Mattis told Congress he would recommend the president should stick with the deal. When Mr Trump said transgender Americans would no longer be eligible to serve in the US military, Mr Mattis killed the initiative by requesting a review.
Most tellingly, he was overheard reassuring a group of US soldiers overseas to stay strong while the storm rages back home. “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it,” Mr Mattis said. “We’ll get the power of inspiration back.”
Let us hope his forecast is correct. In the meantime, America’s allies are becoming experts in cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand they hear the US president downgrade their value while heaping praise on America’s adversaries.
On the other hand, America’s defence chief tells allies what they want to hear. The US has not changed, he says. The phrase “America first” has never escaped Mr Mattis’s lips.
A ROLE FOR MATTIS
People around the defence secretary are not shy of stating his role. Abroad, that means strategic reassurance. At home, it means minding Mr Trump.
When I asked a senior Pentagon official to list the department’s three strategic priorities, I expected North Korea would top the list. The response was: “Educating the president, educating the president and educating the president.” America’s allies know Mr Mattis does this — as do people in Washington.
But what if he were to leave? Imagine if Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, or Chris Christie, the outgoing New Jersey governor, were to replace Mr Mattis. Each would jump at the job.
One of the reasons we still sleep at night is because Mr Trump would need to go through Mr Mattis to use nuclear weapons. Mr Mattis advises soldiers to “engage your brain before you engage your weapon”.
At a time when the US foreign service is being dismantled, Mr Mattis argues that the more the US spends on diplomats the less it would need to spend on ammunition. These are wise precepts.
His nickname may be “Mad Dog”. In reality Mr Mattis is a rational human. In these times - and for that alone - he deserves a medal.
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