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Why James Mattis Deserves Praise, Not Scorn

September 3, 2019
Why James Mattis Deserves Praise, Not Scorn
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

James Mattis is promoting his new book, and he is satisfying nobody. This is a terrible reflection on our politics.

Critics on the right are unhappy with his not-so-subtle criticism of the president. Critics on the left are unhappy that the criticism doesn’t go far enough. Lost in our ping-pong politics is the fact that Mattis is a throwback to an earlier era of statesmanship in the service of justice and one’s country and fellow citizens.

The lunatic right is losing its mind by the small chance that Mattis would embark on a primary challenge to Donald Trump. The allegedly pro-military right knows that it cannot attack Mattis by accusing him of being unpatriotic. It also knows that it cannot call him “low energy” and “weak” because he is a retired four-star general with a reputation for toughness, which they celebrated for several years.

That’s not the whole story about his recent promotions of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. Mattis is also “disloyal” to the president in part because he put the best interest of the country over those of Donald Trump. But the right has not struggled with criticizing others who have defected—Rex Tillerson, Anthony Scaramucci, etc.—because they were not lifelong public servants and popular retired generals. 

On the lunatic end of the left, some are attacking Mattis for agreeing to serve under Donald Trump. Apparently, five decades serving the country—often risking his life—is an insufficient display of his love for his country and doesn’t win him the benefit of the doubt. Risking a stellar career and reputation to save the country from an unhinged commander in chief is now selfish and unpatriotic.

USA Today, meanwhile, ran an editorial, titled, “James Mattis promotes a book that’s silent about Donald Trump. It’s a disservice.” Bold move! But this actually is a disservice to USA Today’s readers because it implies that patriotism begins and ends at the Donald Trump Question.

That both the right and left define patriotism around the Donald Trump Question is a poor reflection on us.

In fact, Mattis wrote most of the book before becoming the secretary of defense, and the book was supposed to be about his military service. But everyone has to go and make it about Trump. Mattis could have written an explosive insider memoir of his time in the administration, and what a train wreck the White House was. It would, in fact, be an easier book to write and would sell much more than his upcoming one. But he didn’t.

Should Mattis criticize the administration and warn us about the threat it poses? He should, and he is, but he is being smart about it.

In a Wall Street Journal essay, Mattis subtly referred to Nike as “a great American company.” Only a fool would think that this was not a quiet rebuke to Trump’s attack on Nike. His whole essay was about honor and virtue, two words that very few people would use to describe Trump. It is obvious whom Mattis is talking about. Harry Truman once said that the greatest form of persuasion is one that brings somebody to a conclusion but gives them the impression that it is their own discovery, which is exactly what Mattis is doing: “Donny’s bad, it’s my seeds to plant in your minds, but it’s your plant to grow.”

Nor is Mattis’s silence a guarantee. He has implied that he will break it at the right time: “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”

Mattis will speak when the time is right. He loves our country, and he doesn’t love its leader. And he has already shown us that he does the right thing at the right time; he rushed to serve in 2016 when the country needed a moderating force against an erratic leader, and he resigned when it was the right course of action.

Based on his decades of public service, we should trust that he will do so once again.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.