Jim Mattis’s resignation from the Trump administration, and his subsequent accelerated dismissal, prompted responses that bordered on the hagiographic. Tellingly, most of the anecdotes in these articles and columns emphasized his career up to the point when Mattis walked into the Pentagon as Defense secretary, rather than his performance in that role - which was decidedly lackluster.
In the Atlantic, foreign policy scholar Eliot Cohen told a heartwarming story of Mattis relieving a young Marine from checkpoint duty, on a Christmas Day at Quantico, Virginia, so he could spend the holiday with his family. Retired Army officer John Nagl recalled that Mattis joined Marines in foxholes on cold nights in Afghanistan to keep watch. Post columnist Max Boot chimed in, saying Mattis in Iraq in 2003 was “as close to a reincarnation of George S. Patton as I would ever meet.”
Nagl and Cohen both noted that Mattis is an avid reader of the classics, with a personal library of thousands of books on history and strategy. While he is no doubt a highly respected Marine and an unconventional thinker, the praise in all these pieces was so thick it obscured his actual record in the job he resigned from (beyond vague assertions that he “labored to save the world from Trump,” as Boot put it).
It’s hard to square the irreproachable figure in the post-resignation evaluations with some of his actions. In the weeks leading up to the resignation, for instance, Mattis had an opportunity to set the record straight on two important issues generating controversy at home and abroad - and he whiffed on both.
At a joint news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he demurred when asked about the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, declaring that there was “no smoking gun” proving the Saudis were involved. Days later, CIA Director Gina Haspel would brief Congress that her agency had concluded that Riyadh was complicit in the murder; Mattis apparently decided to ignore or disregard that intelligence assessment, which had reportedly been completed before he spoke.
Mattis’s comments during a visit with troops deployed in support of Trump’s controversial southern border policy were equally regrettable. Given an opportunity to talk about the military’s role there to service members on the ground - and the U.S. public - Mattis struggled. A young soldier asked Mattis what the “short and the long-term plans of this operation” were, and Mattis responded: “Short term right now, you get the obstacles in so the border patrolmen can do what they gotta do. . . . Longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined.” He added: “We’ll just have to see what the situation develops in, and then we’ll get you an answer.”
To be sure, Mattis did not devise this misguided mission, which politicized the armed services. But if Mattis was not going to resign over this mission, he owed more to the men and women on the ground there than the muddled non-rationale he provided.
At least Mattis provided statements in these two cases, albeit fairly useless ones; throughout his tenure as secretary, the Defense Department became considerably less transparent than it had been under his predecessors. The department gave reporters little access to its senior leaders, including Mattis himself, and became more stinting with information about what it was doing, both with the public and with our allies.
Mattis has few Defense-policy achievements to point to. His immediate predecessor, Ashton B. Carter, implemented one of the most far-reaching military personnel policy changes of the past several decades: the opening of all military combat duty positions to women. This change also provided a pathway for women to positions of leadership within the uniformed services as well, because assignment to combat units is a prerequisite for many jobs. The shift will shape the military in profound ways in the decades ahead.
Mattis went out of his way to distance himself from this move. It was, he said, “a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small that we have no data on it.” And he openly expressed skepticism of it. “Clearly, the jury is out” about whether women in combat were “a strength or a weakness,” he said. The women serving in - or even commanding - infantry units, or those in the pipeline for Special Operations training are right to be unimpressed by his leadership in this area.
Mattis also played a key role in devising the United States’ policy in Afghanistan. At the time of the Afghanistan policy review in 2017, Mattis was arguably the most influential adviser within the Trump administration, as well as the most respected Trump official in the eyes of the public and our allies. Yet despite his influence, intellect and experience, Mattis championed a status quo policy for Afghanistan that all but guaranteed the situation there would remain an unsatisfying stalemate.
Mattis bet that a modest increase in troops and bombings could compel the Taliban to negotiate a peace settlement. Unsurprisingly, they did no such thing.
Mattis could have suggested any number of options: He might have argued that the president should substantially increase the number of troops in Afghanistan or, given the president’s unease with the mission, provided options for the United States to bring its military involvement there to some sort of a conclusion. Given the president’s regard for the man he chose as Defense secretary partly for his central-casting looks, Trump probably would have considered any options Mattis put forward. But in the end, the man who helped Gen. David Petraeus literally write the book on counterinsurgency had no new ideas to offer in the 17-year-old war.
So the florid praise for Mattis spilling out of every corner - nearly all of it focused on Mattis the Marine, Mattis the commander, Mattis the “last adult” at the table - seems unwarranted. While Mattis had admirable qualities as a military leader, that experience did not translate into meaningful accomplishments as Defense secretary. And the idea that things on the national security front would have been much worse without him is unprovably counterfactual. They are pretty bad now, and Mattis deserves some of the blame.
Bob Wilson is a retired army colonel. He served on the National Security Council in the Obama and Trump administrations and commanded U.S. special operations forces in combat in Afghanistan. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.