“Mad Dog” Mattis Just Another Pussycat

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0


Donald Trump pointedly drove to the Pentagon on Friday to close U.S. borders to refugees from around the world; to block families indefinitely fleeing the slaughter in Syria; and to suspend immigration from seven Muslim countries.  With Secretary of Defense James Mattis smiling over his shoulder, Trump established a religious test for refugees from Muslim countries and ordered that Christians and others from minority religions would be granted priority over Muslims.  During his confirmation hearings, General Mattis spoke with great feeling about his opposition to such moves and explained that the coalition to stop international terrorism would be weakened by any attempt to target and demonize Muslims.

As a result, the mainstream media almost unanimously opined that Mattis would be a leavening influence, a source of moderation, inside the Trump administration. A “Mad Dog” Mattis would consider resignation, however; a cat’s paw would stay in place.  This was the kind of decision that Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired general, faced in the fall of 2002, when the Bush administration decided on the war that he correctly opposed.  Like a loyal general officer, Powell put on his three-piece and lied to the United Nations in February 2003 about why it was necessary to invade Iraq. Just another cat’s paw.

Behind the confusion and chaos of the Muslim ban, there were additional steps taken by the Trump administration that will lead to the further militarization of U.S. national security policy.  Over the weekend, the administration produced a memorandum that restructured the National Security Council to ensure that there would not always be a representative of the intelligence community at the table.  Since the creation of the NSC 70 years ago, either the Director of the CIA or the director of national intelligence attended principal’s meetings to ensure that the views of the intelligence community had a role in the formation of decision making.

And to make matters worse, Steve Bannon, a pugnacious and polemical political adviser, has been named a permanent member of the NSC.  Several years ago, Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too.  I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  Clearly, the traditional establishment played no role in the chaotic decision making over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the NSC itself has been fundamentally militarized.  The national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, a conspiratorial thinker, who is unlikely to ensure that the president has the best possible advice from his Cabinet and his national security team, has moved quickly to militarize his staff with low-ranking appointments.  A former career Army officer, Dave Horan, will be a senior staffer dealing with strategy.  A former Marine officer, Robin Townley, will be senior director for Africa.  Another Marine intelligence officer, Matt Pottinger, will be senior director for Asia.  The NSC’s chief of staff will be a retired three-star general.  Vice President Mike Pence has predictably joined the militarization campaign by naming a career Army intelligence officer as his own national security advisor.

The reliance on general officers totally undermines the Founding Fathers’ preference for civilian control of the military.  In addition to Mattis and Flynn, a general officer commands the Department of Homeland Security, and a West Point graduate is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  During the campaign, Donald Trump could not have been more critical of the military and even promised to remove many of them if he were elected.  Instead, he has created a national security phalanx that will militarize decision making and politicize the military.  This phalanx will have greater powers due to the near total ignorance and inexperience of the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who somehow never tried to consult the outgoing secretary of state prior to his confirmation hearings.  Moreover, he inherits a weakened State Department from which key assistant secretaries have been purged.

The costs of militarization have been great over the past two decades.  In addition to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been unnecessary increases in defense spending that required reduced domestic spending in key areas.  Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a more powerful military (and even a war) to create a more powerful presidency.  There is reason to believe that Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, who wrote Trump’s passionately nationalistic inauguration speech, are using the same playbook.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.