Mattis and Mike Pence walk together in 2018.

Mattis and Mike Pence walk together in 2018. Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Army

Viewpoint: The Mattis Two-Step

The forever general’s attempt to "stay out of politics" is bringing him right into it.

Jim Mattis sure is talking now. 

After ducking cameras for most of his term as former defense secretary, the forever general is one week into a book tour on which, through a series of high-profile interviews, he is trying desperately to send Washington and the country a message by talking a lot but not saying too much. 

Mattis knows you want him to torch the president. But he has embraced with a G.I. Joe kung-fu grip the sometimes-honored (and not entirely admired) principle that retired military generals should keep out of politics. 

“Politics ends at the water’s edge,” he says. “You have to keep in mind that I was the secretary of defense. I protected this currently very raucous country, this experiment that we call America.” 

Mattis is a low-talking man with high-falutin’ phrases, humble enough to be filmed shaking hands and having a beer at his local bar in Washington state but equally as comfortable in the Oval Office. This week, his audience was Washington, D.C., the town that most eagerly wants him to unload on President Donald Trump. In 2016, the national security rookie-president hired the retired Marine general with great fanfare; two years later, Trump cast him aside after he resigned over policy differences — most immediately, the surprise tweet-announcement that the U.S. would pull out of Syria. On Thursday, the audience was more intimate. If there is an inner sanctum of Washington’s power elite, very close to it is the living room of Katherine and David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media (including Defense One), whose frequent gatherings bring together leaders in politics, media, entertainment, and yes, the military. Andrea Mitchell, who had just hours earlier peppered Mattis with questions on her MSNBC show, came to hear more. Others included Bob Woodward, Bill Cohen, Dana Bash, Margaret Brennan, Sally Quinn, Heather Podesta, Margaret Carlson, Mary Louise Kelly, Elizabeth Bumiller, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Helene Cooper, Chris Frates, Philip Rucker, Michele Flournoy, Dan Lamothe, Jeremy Bash, Peter Bergen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and others who stood at attention a bit more upright when Bradley announced unexpectedly that he told Mattis the requirement for the party was he must take a few questions.

By now, many of those paying attention to Mattis’s public reemergence are likely as frustrated as Atlantic editor Jeff Goldberg, who conducted the first post-Trump interview with the former secretary. Some are angry that Mattis, who was so opaque with the media and the American public while in office, has grown quite talkative now that he has a book to sell. And although he would like to be seen as a quiet sentinel of democracy, he is just picking and choosing when he wants to dip his toe into political issues. By going public, he has shaped the news cycle for an entire week, re-surfacing questions of Trump’s fitness to be commander in chief and inviting reconsideration of Trump administration policy on Syria, negotiations with the Taliban, U.S. military interventions, “forever wars,” the president’s ban on transgender Americans serving in uniform, the treatment of immigrant soldiers, the political theater of dispatching troops and diverting funds to the U.S.-Mexico border, and more.

Ask Mattis about any of these and you get mixed results. He is a book guy. He loves to quote history. He told Bradley’s guests that he wants more historians, not just journalists, to make sense of today’s leaders and what’s happening today. But they wanted him to make sense of recent history.

Why was Syria the last straw? Why a policy disagreement, and not something more “moral”? asked Sally Quinn. 

“To me,” Mattis said, “the threat, the tweet, the pullout was a moral decision. I’d just came out, eight days before, from Ottawa, where the 16 troop-contributing nations had met. We all agreed — it was like a huddle, we put our heads, we said we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna stick with it, we’re not going to declare early victory. Some of us here are from the American West and we know what it’s like when you pull the forest-fire crews off the forest fire early. We’d done it in Iraq. We saw the tragedy when the same administration that pulled the troops out against the intelligence community’s recommendation had to put the troops back in. How many millions were made refugees? How many millions had their lives disrupted, tens of thousands murdered, children, girls enslaved? That was strategic — with moral dimensions, that was a strategic policy decision. To have our allies treated that way, as they were taking very tough steps to stick with us? Nations with allies thrive, and nations without them die. And there just came a point where I thought it was the right time to go.”

It’s that point of departure that seems to perplex most. What does Mattis stand for? When asked what most concerns him, he again turned to history and the political turmoil here and in the UK. 

“The concern I have is that democracies don’t know what they stand for, or are ashamed of it, or are unwilling to say also what they absolutely will not stand for.” 

He believes in America, he says. He thinks the nation is not defined by the racism and fear on display today. His faith in America probably comes from his oft-professed love and admiration for young Marines who sacrifice their lives for it. It’s not the people he worries about, it’s the commitment to each other.

Mattis repeats that the U.S. needs to sort out its global strategy. Generals love to talk about strategy. It seems safely apolitical, but without “wading into politics,” he quickly waded into politics. Without saying “Obama,” he criticized the previous administration, claiming they had no strategy when he arrived on the job for Trump. He’s proud when he says “we” reset the Pentagon to be able to deter “global power competition” from North Korea, Russia, and China. And he had a message about “forever wars” — though he did not use the phrase — for commanders in chief: “Terrorism is an ambient threat. We must continue fighting terrorism. You can want the war over, you can declare the war over — the enemy gets the vote. We’ve seen that before. We got the t-shirt, we’ve got to go back into Iraq. But look at what it cost a lot of people.” 

Mattis likes to boast about the informal code that keeps retired military officers apolitical, but he’s cherry-picking. He cites Gen. Omar Bradley about keeping one’s mouth shut, but not the many, many officers who entered politics and political life admirably and with historic impact, like Presidents Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Mattis said he’s disagreed with two of his friends for getting into politics on the left and right: John Allen, who endorsed Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, and Mike Flynn, who led Republican cheers of “Lock her up!”, did influence work for Turkey, and became Trump’s first, and shortest-serving, national security advisor. Allen is now president of the Brookings Institution. Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI about Russian influence in the Trump campaign. Fellow retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, listened from the back of the room. 

Mattis also cherry-picks when to violate his own creed. Sometimes it’s blatant. On Andrea Mitchell’s show, he made a clear case for why Americans should believe climate change is real and make policies to prepare for it, which is the opposite of what Trump is ordering of the Pentagon. Other times, it’s a result of his choice to speak up at all. As Goldberg writes in the Atlantic, “His aides and friends say he found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character.” 

And that’s the core issue. On Thursday, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly asked Mattis about the line between serving the country and serving the commander in chief. 

“The duty and responsibility is to the Constitution, not the commander in chief, not to me,” Mattis replied. “I respect those that disagree with what I’m doing, but you have to go back to General Washington…” and he faded into historical examples. “General Bradley says when a general retires their uniform, they need to retire their tongue, when it comes to political issues. There are hundreds of years of you having confidence in the military that we stay out of this. Just tonight, I’ve been referred to as ‘general,’ when I walked in tonight I was welcomed as 'general'… I can rail against that, I can say my name is Jim, but the fact is I’m a general forever. And if we ever get to the point where the military is seen as saying, ‘We’re better than you. We can tell you what’s right’ — John Allen and Michael Flynn are both friends of mine, and they’ll be friends of mine ’til the day I die, because we served together in combat. But I could not disagree more strongly with what they did in the last [election] — from both sides — you know, talking about who people should be voting for? The military doesn’t do that. We defend this experiment. We don’t do any more. Fortunately, that tradition is still alive. I could very easily be the one most damning to it if I don’t be careful, and so I will retreat west of the Rockies soon and keep the Rockies between me and D.C., but in the interim, I’m not talkin’.”