Will President Trump and Secretary James Mattis get along?
Out of all of President Trump’s picks for top cabinet positions, James Mattis’ nomination for Secretary of Defense seems to be the one to have received the least amount of scrutiny. In fact, Mr. Mattis was confirmed, almost unanimously by the Senate (98-1) on Friday January 20, couple of hours after Mr Trump took the oath of office. Other nominations for important cabinet positions such as that of Betsy DeVos for Education or Rex Tillerson for State have yet lead to confirmation as several questions continue to be raised about the postulants' suitability for the job. This is not to suggest General Mattis is exempt of reproach. After all, he has been on the record making comments about Islam that were not necessarily appropriate.
General Mattis' new role as defense secretary has of course implications as far as the new administration’s vision for the U.S. military is concerned. President Trump has indicated throughout the campaign season that he intends to pursue an isolationist policy. He has questioned the need to have an important military alliance such as NATO, going as far as qualifying it of obsolete. Furthermore, he has made a series of comments that seemed to indicate that he intends to pursue a rapprochement with Russia. The NATO argument is unprecedented given the US long standing policy of ensuring the security, peace and prosperity of Europe.
It is therefore difficult to understand why President Trump chose General Mattis as defense secretary whose track record does not seem to align with an isolationist military policy. Whereas President Trump would prefer to take a step back and allow Russian to influence things in Syria, General Mattis is more likely to advocate for a bigger US military role in the conflict. Most importantly, a rapprochement with Russia is not an idea shared by the newly sworn Secretary of defense, as evidenced by comments made during his Senate confirmation hearing. When asked about the possibility of seeking closer ties with Russia, Mattis simply indicated that the United States has several times tried to engage positively with Russia in the past and that there is “a relatively short list of successes in that regard”.
Given Mr Trump and General Mattis' apparent different viewpoints on critical issues in American military policy, there is the potential for tensions between the two men. In any case, President Trump's authoritarian tendencies is more likely to lead to the dismissal of General Mattis à la General MacArthur if tensions were to arise. However, in doing so, the president's political capital could take a hit.