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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Looking at the real James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis

Marine Corps General James Mattis, during his Senate confirmation hearing, in July 2010, to succeed General David Petraeus as commander of US Central Command.Alex Wong/Getty Images

“The media take Trump literally, but not seriously. Voters take him seriously, but not literally.” This, by Salena Zito, was the smartest thing written about the 2016 election and deserves a place in every dictionary of quotations.

Now let me give you some advice about General James Mattis, who will almost certainly be President Trump’s secretary of defense. Take him both literally and seriously.

General Mattis is a dictionary of quotes in his own right. I especially like the way he meets and greets. “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you [expletive] with me, I’ll kill you all.” With Mattis, however, you get much more than just words. You get deeds.


As the commander of the First Marine Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mattis earned a daunting reputation as a master of kinetic warfare. During the push to Baghdad, he relieved one of his sub-unit commanders for not advancing fast enough. In 2007 he coauthored, with David Petraeus, the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” the template for the successful “surge” in Iraq. So fond of combat was Mattis that the Marines’ affectionate nickname for him was “Mad Dog.”

Full disclosure: Jim Mattis and I are both fellows of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. I admire him and consider him a friend. In person, he is neither deranged nor canine, but softly spoken and erudite. Mattis is not only a fearsome warrior; he is also a deep strategic thinker, a soldier-scholar in the mold of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose “Meditations” he carried with him in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You might have expected such an inspired appointment to receive a warm welcome. Dream on. The liberal media, humiliated by Trump’s triumph, have sought to misrepresent his transition as chaotic. As it happens, General Mattis’s nom de guerre was “Chaos.” In both cases, it is the kind of chaos you inflict on your enemies. Trump is not reenacting Celebrity Apprentice. He is assembling what would once have been called “a ministry of all the talents.”


True, the choice of Mattis is unorthodox. He will be the first general to run the Pentagon since Harry Truman appointed George Marshall, in 1950. All other secretaries of defense have been civilians. Trump has decided to ignore that convention, as well as to ask Congress to waive the rule that a general must spend seven years in retirement before he can take the job. Cue raised eyebrows. But I think this is the best decision Trump has taken since his historic election victory.

Here’s why. As president, Trump has the enticing opportunity to fix America’s broken foreign policy. His proposed “great deal” with Putin could end the war in Syria and resolve the not-so-frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. A comparable deal with China could address the economic grievances of Middle America while creating a new basis for peaceful coexistence with the Middle Kingdom, addressing key flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific region such as North Korea and the South China Sea. The Trump presidency can also change the game in the Middle East by abandoning the Obama administration’s ill-conceived tilt toward Iran. And it can jolt continental Europeans out of their complacency, so that NATO ceases to be an alliance paid for by Americans and taken for granted by Germans.


However, to achieve all this will require more than Kissingerian diplomatic skill. It will also need the credible threat of force — for without that, America’s enemies and allies alike will take advantage of the businessman Trump just as they took advantage of the law professor Obama. This is where Jim Mattis comes in.

First, Mattis has unrivalled credibility. It is not only Marines who love the man. Even Michèle Flournoy, who likely would have had his job if Hillary Clinton had won, speaks of him with reverence.

Second, Mattis is a hawk on Iran. Indeed, some say it was his readiness to contemplate military action against Iran that led to his being sacked from CENTCOM by Obama. He is unrepentant. In a lecture in April 2016, he called the Tehran regime “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” Nevertheless, he also argued against ripping up Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Mattis will advise Trump to keep the agreement, but punish Iranian breaches of it with military retaliation. He will also propose tougher action against Iranian regional proxies, notably Hezbollah.

Third, unlike Trump, Mattis has no illusions about Putin. He spoke out against the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, and has implicitly criticized the Obama administration for not being tough enough.

Finally, Mattis has a playbook for the Chinese, too. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in 2015, he stated that “efforts in the Pacific to keep positive relations with China” must be “paralleled by a policy to build the counterbalance if China continues to expand its bullying role in the South China Sea and elsewhere.”


Theodore Roosevelt’s mantra was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Under Obama, the United States has lectured loudly and carried a limp twig. All that is about to change. Unlike Donald Trump, Jim Mattis speaks softly. And that big stick he carries is sharp, too. Take him literally. Take him very, very seriously.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.