Gen. James N. Mattis Was Informed by a Note From an Aide That the White House had Decided to Sack Him

Gen. James N. Mattis (Getty Images)

United States Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis was notified that he was being replaced as commander of U.S. Central Command not by a phone call from Washington, but by a note passed to him by an aide, according to Foreign Policy’s Thomas E. Ricks.

From Ricks’ report:

General Mattis was travelling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House.

Ricks says he inquired further into this report. This is what he was told:

…the commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government.

But there’s also the matter of common courtesy to an uncommon man. Here is what one person wrote to me: “What message does it send to the Services when the one leader known for his war-fighting rather than diplomatic or bureaucratic political skills is retired early via one sentence in the Pentagon’s daily press handout? Even in battle, Mattis was inclusive of all under his command. He took the time to pull together his driver and guards after every day’s rotation on the battlefield, telling them what he thought he had learned and asking them for input. Surely senior administration officials could have found the time to be gracious. But they didn’t.”

President Obama appointed Gen. Mattis as commander of U.S. Central Command in the summer of 2010. He was quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“During his time as commander, none of the symptoms of unhealthy civil-military relations such as those that characterized the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, have manifested themselves,” Mackubin Thomas Owens writes in the Weekly Standard.

“There have been no leaks to the press over policy disagreements and no reports of ‘slow rolling’ or ‘foot dragging’ in Gen. Mattis’s implementation of the president’s policy,” Owens adds.

Gen. James N. Mattis Was Informed by a Note From an Aide That the White House had Decided to Sack Him

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander, U.S. Central Command speaks with Chief of Defense of the Qatar Armed Forces Lt.Gen. Hamad Bin Ali Al-Attiah and Staff Lt. General Hamad Mohammed Thani Al Rumaithi, Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces Kuwaiti National Day military parade on Feb. 26, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

In short, Gen. Mattis was efficient and professional. So when it was announced last year that Gen. Mattis would be exiting his post sometime in March 2013, many of us were surprised. For a general who had carried himself and performed his duties so well, his tenure as commander of U.S. Central Command was unusually short-lived.

What happened?

Again, we turn to Ricks at Foreign Policy:

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 …

Gen. Mattis, as Ricks notes, also disagreed with the White House on the U.S.’ ongoing operation in Afghanistan, Pakistani stability, and (perhaps most importantly) the U.S.’ response to the so-called “Arab Spring.”

And it’s because of these disagreements that certain commentators believe the White House decided to dump Gen. Mattis.

Gen. James N. Mattis Was Informed by a Note From an Aide That the White House had Decided to Sack Him

AL ASAD, Iraq – Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command, speaks to Marines with Marine Wing Support Group 27, May 6. Mattis explained how things in Iraq have gotten better since the first time Marines came to Iraq. (Photo by Cpl. Zachary Dyer)

“Of course, a president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves,” Owens notes.

“By pushing Mattis overboard, the administration is sending a message that it doesn’t want smart, independently minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. The message that generals and admirals may receive that they should go along to get along, which is a bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations,” Owens concludes.

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Featured image courtesy the AP.