Also called “the Warrior Monk,” the well-read native of Pullman, Wash., joined the Marines at 19 and retired three years ago after heading Central Command, where he oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
There were signs even before Thursday’s announcement that the 66-year-old, who has never owned a television, never been married and has no children, was influencing the president-elect on key policy issues.
Trump told the New York Times that he had asked Mattis his views on the practice of waterboarding, a form of torture widely used by U.S. intelligence post-9/11 but since abandoned. Trump pledged during the raucous presidential campaign that he would bring it back, much to the delight of his core supporters.
Trump told the Times the general’s answer surprised him. “He said: ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said: ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’”
And, while Mattis didn’t necessarily change Trump’s mind on the issue, it certainly gave the billionaire pause. “I was very impressed by that answer…[Perhaps] it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think.”
Indeed, there have been signs Trump may be moderating some of his stated views on issues such as climate change, health care and immigration, though his choices for some key advisory and cabinet positions suggest otherwise.
His national security adviser, for example, is retired lieutenant-general Michael Flynn, a onetime military intelligence chief who once said “Islamism . . . is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.”
A campaigning Trump promised to register U.S. Muslims and ban others at the border until officials “can figure out what is going on.” But Mattis’s approach is very different, judging by past comments.
Mattis, the same man who famously said “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” also warned his troops: “If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.”
Before splitting with Obama on Iran policy, he co-authored a counterinsurgency manual aimed at limiting sectarian violence in Iraq. “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians,” he said, “it’s a victory for al-Qaida and other insurgents.”
Trump threatened to pull the plug on American defence pacts like NATO, calling allies “freeloaders.” While considering a presidential run of his own last spring, Mattis said: “For a sitting U.S. president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts.”
Even on Iran, Mattis is seen by many as a voice of reason and potential moderating influence among the hawks advising Trump. He’s been described by former colleagues as realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East. He has questioned the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal but said “there’s no going back” on it.
Mattis’s appointment will require a congressional waiver because he is fewer than seven years out of the military.