Last month, President Obama nominated Gen. Lloyd Austin to succeed Gen. James Mattis as the head of U.S. Central Command. The choice and its timing immediately raised questions about Mattis’ future, particularly given his standing as one of the most revered military leaders of his generation.
Mattis was typically stoic when I approached him for a response.
“I’ll remain focused on my job at CENTCOM for now and figure out the rest later,” he said in an email.
U.S. military officials have speculated for months that Mattis could leave his CENTCOM post by this summer and join civilian life. Now, though, a well-connected journalist and analyst is raising questions whether that could happen even sooner.
In a blog post this morning, Tom Ricks suggests that Mattis has been told to vacate his office “several months early” — possibly even by March.
Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”
Inquiry along these lines apparently was not welcomed — at least in the CENTCOM view. The White House view, apparently, is that Mattis was too hawkish, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I’d call him a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.
Ricks, now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, is certainly well connected. It seems unlikely that sources would have opened up to him on this topic unless there was some sort of tension behind the scenes.
And therein lies the rub. Obama may have been the commander in chief who authorized the bin Laden raid, but many troops believe he still lacks gravitas on his national security resume. Allowing a smart, critical general with connections to governments all over the world retire early seems foolhardy, at best.
That question, “and then what?” We always need our leaders to ask it. Always.