WASHINGTON – the issues that divide Defence Minister Jim Mattis and President Donald Trump of the incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, one stands out: North Korea.
Bolton, who will replace Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster on April 9, has publicly called for the overthrow of the North Korean government. Mattis, a retired Marine general who knows closely the costs of the war, favors diplomacy to rid the North of nuclear weapons and has said that the war on the Korean peninsula “catastrophic.” On Iran, Mattis would seem at odds with Bolton, who has called for the abolition of the Obama-era nuclear deal.
These, and other issues of war and peace test Mattis’ influence with Trump as his national security team is overhauled.
Mattis was sometimes at odds with the McMaster, but the arrival of the hawkish Bolton, combined with the firing of Secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the uncertain status of John Kelly as White House chief of staff, apparently Mattis more isolated than ever since he took over the Pentagon in 15 months ago. Often described as a holding or moderating influence on the impulsive Trump, Mattis has had little previous relationship with Bolton.
The North Korea issue is front-and-center: He has agreed with the North Korean President Kim Jong-Un and by the as Possible, to discuss the North’s nuclear disarmament. The unprecedented summit would be a turning point in a decades-old U.S.-North Korean conflict that Trump himself has said would end up in “fire and fury” – a U.s. nuclear attack __ to stop the North from obtaining the ability to strike the US with a nuclear missile.
“This is buckle-up time,” retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said last week on MSNBC. “For the military, I have three words: Sharpen your swords. He (Bolton) is someone who is going to reach for the military instrument.”
The changes in the White House and the State Department, while significant for Mattis, were hardly heart-stopping. People who are close to him feel no change in his dedication to the task; some suggest that Trump’s decision to move former Republican congressman and current CIA director Mike Pompeo, replace Tillerson, could benefit from Mattis in the sense that he is a partner in the State, which is better matched to the Trumpet.
In public, Mattis has said little about the shakeup. He was in Afghanistan as Tillerson got the ax. When reporters asked his reaction a few days later, Mattis said that he would rather not comment on the details, although he went on to suggest that its importance was exaggerated. He said that in all his talks abroad with foreign government officials and American troops, the matter is not even.
“I understand why you ask, but I’m just pointing out that in most parts of the world, this is a Washington, D. C. story,” he said.
Another Washington story is Mattis and his ability to forge a workable relationship with the Trumpet, despite differences on a number of issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Mattis says is incorrect, but the worth, honor as long as the Iranians do. Mattis has also differed with the president over Trump’s desire to be all transgender persons from military service, and he helped swing Trump from his tendency last year to end the AMERICAN military involvement in Afghanistan.
The Mattis formula seems simple. Out of the spotlight, out of trouble. The less he says in public, the less the risk of losing influence on the Trumpet.
“A part of his success … is definitely the fact that you don’t see him in the spotlight an awful lot,” says Loren Dejonge Schulman, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security who served in key national security positions in the White House and the Pentagon under President Barack Obama. “That may be to get him out of trouble with the White House, but I think that setting an incredibly bad precedent in terms of the Pentagon transparency.”
As Mattis, who has more than 40 years in uniform and it is the first career military man to lead the Pentagon since George C. Marshall in the early 1950s, is not the most experienced politician to run the military’s massive bureaucracy, he has a knack for staying out of trouble with his thin-skinned boss.
Mattis has even broken Trump he in the habit of calling the retired general “Mad Dog”, which Mattis calls was a media invention to begin with.
Trump often has lunch and dinner with the minister of defence and speaks glowingly of him to outside consultants. White House officials have said that Trump sometimes repeat the military historical anecdotes he heard of Mattis.
Even Mattis’ a few well-known stumbles not pursued him. In August, for example, Mattis said sailors on a submarine base in his home state of Washington that the Navy would give them the worst and the best days of their lives, and added: “that means That you are not a number of (expletive) sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “You know what I mean, kind of sitting there and said, ‘Well, I should have done something with my life.'”
His language was quickly forgotten.
The episode pointed to a man who has formed the job and not let it shape him. So much so that it is perhaps the most poignant critique of his mandate is the secrecy that the military has dealt with everything from troop deployment numbers to the details of the military strategies of the things, which often were made public on the basis of previous secretaries.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.