With the news that Donald Trump will nominate former Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for secretary of defense, the president-elect seems to be surrounding himself with a powerful cadre of war hawks.
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But while Mattis oversaw military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010-1013 and would be the first general to serve as secretary of defense since General George Marshall in 1950, he could also be a moderating influence among those advising Trump about how to confront radical Islam.
On the campaign trail and in GOP primary debates, candidate Trump often see-sawed between bellicosity and pulling America back from being the policeman of the world. He denounced the war in Iraq as “a big fat mistake” and sometimes seemed more in tune with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders when he talked about keeping the country out of incursions overseas.
On the other hand, Trump frequently railed against radical Islam and vowed to eradicate the Islamic State. Positions laid out on the Trump-Pence website include pursuing “aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS.”
Mike Flynn, the former Army lieutenant general selected to be National Security Adviser, has gone considerably further than Trump in describing the threat from jihadists. In the introduction to his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (written with Michael Ledeen and released earlier this year), Flynn says he was fired by President Obama as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 after telling a congressional committee that the country was not as safe as it had been a few years earlier.
But the threat he identifies goes beyond a “vicious, barbaric enemy.” Flynn writes: “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” He goes on to say that he doesn’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent and thinks the West, and America especially, is more civilized, ethical and moral than the system embraced by al Qaeda and ISIS, who are “driven by a systemic vision of how to conquer the world and impose their religious ideology on all of us.” Flynn says they must be destroyed.
Flynn isn’t the only potential member of the new administration who may be more hawkish than the incoming commander-in chief. K.T. McFarland, a former deputy assistant defense secretary and security analyst who will be Flynn’s number two, wrote in a column for Fox News last March: “Global Islamist jihad is at war with all of Western civilization. President Obama and other Western leaders may not see it as a war, but the other side does … Not all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Not by a long shot. But even if just 10 percent of 1 percent are radicalized, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying Western civilization and the values we hold dear.”
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And neither Steve Bannon, the controversial campaign chief who has been appointed chief White House strategist, nor Mike Pompeo, the congressman from Kansas and member of the House Intelligence Committee who has been chosen to head the CIA, are exactly doves of peace.
In remarks to a Vatican conference in 2014 when he was head of Breitbart News, Bannon, a former Naval officer, said: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”
Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at West Point before serving as an Army tank commander and then going on to Harvard Law School, has cautioned against equating Islam and terrorism. But he has the enemy in his sights. In a speech in 2015, Pompeo said: “The line is drawn not between faiths but between extremists, and those who accept modernity and those who are barbarians. We should understand that line, and we should never be fearful to walk right up to the line, find those on the other side, and crush them.”
There is no doubt that Mattis, too, recognizes the threat from al Qaeda, ISIS and radical Islam. He has said: “Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment [in American democracy] and kill every one of them until they’re so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact.”
But at the same time, Mattis is known as a cerebral and thoughtful warrior and could rein in any rush to commit ground troops to do battle with ISIS – though not everyone agrees that he would be a force for restraint.
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In a column on Nov. 30 before the news about Mattis broke, military historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University wrote: “President Trump is also likely to double down on the use of conventional military force. In that regard, his promise to ‘quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS’ offers a hint of what is to come. His appointment of the uber-hawkish Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser and his rumored selection of retired Marine Corps General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis as defense secretary suggest that he means what he says.”
For Mattis, Pompeo and Flynn, the threat from what Mattis calls “political Islam” isn’t just about al Qaeda or ISIS, though. They all seem to think the biggest danger to America is Iran. Like Flynn, Mattis was pushed out by President Obama, but his sin was being too openly critical of the nuclear agreement with Iran. And in an op-ed in July, Pompeo said Washington should “walk away from this deal.”