I read with interest Taylor Lewis’s article this week titled “Mattis Trashes ‘America First’ but That Dog Won’t Hunt.” As I was reading, it became apparent quite quickly that Mr. Lewis has an apparent axe to grind with the former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General. His appraisal of Mattis’s position and the inferences Mr. Lewis draws from them have some flaws that I thought should be addressed. Let me say from the start, I respect Mr. Lewis’s right to have an opinion and don’t expect that all of us here at Free the People are going to agree on everything all the time.
But a free and open debate about ideas and policy is what makes us strong. Following are some of my thoughts on his take on Mattis’s position.
I want to start with a very minor quibble. It’s a minor point but one that I feel is instructive in uncovering Mr. Lewis’s tone and approach to appraising Secretary Mattis. He refers to Mattis as “Mad Dog” repeatedly and weaves dog metaphors throughout the piece to emphasize the nickname. The issue is that “Mad Dog” isn’t really Mattis’s nickname. It is what Trump called him; he even erroneously took credit for coming up with it. However, that was a moniker that was derisively given to Mattis by the press dating back to at least 2004. Mattis disliked the nickname and was public about that fact. Mattis addressed the nickname in his Senate confirmation hearings in January 2017 and explained: “That nickname was given to me by the press, and some of you may have experienced similar occasions with the press where perhaps they didn’t get it right.” If we want to refer to the Secretary by his military nickname, it’s actually “Chaos.” Some also refer to him as the “Warrior Monk,” but “Secretary Mattis” is sufficient for my purposes today. Again, I just point this fact out because I think Mr. Lewis tips his hand a bit by utilizing the misnomer.
In the article, Mr. Lewis asserts that Secretary Mattis’s critique of the President “leaves a few unanswered questions” that he goes on to list. However, those unanswered questions are both based on faulty premises and already answered if one had done just a modicum of research into the man one is critiquing. Mr. Lewis’s unanswered questions are:
“Is this just sour grapes over being dismissed by the President?”
Seeing as Secretary Mattis resigned and wasn’t dismissed, it is hard to see why there would be any “sour grapes.” Of course, after the Department of Defense released the Secretary’s resignation letter and the President tweeted a confirmation, three days later President Trump attempted to spin the narrative by stating that he “essentially” fired Mattis. But the fact remains that Mattis resigned over policy differences. He moved aside so that the President could have “a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours…” as he stated in that resignation letter. Claiming to fire someone who has already resigned seems to be the act of sour grapes in my opinion.
“Is the four-star general gunning for a book deal?”
Seeing that Mattis has already published a book since he departed the administration, that seems an unlikely motivation. Also, it’s worth noting that in that book he declined to criticize the President or his administration. He stated in an interview, “when you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.” This was an honorable position to take considering that releasing a tell-all book would have been much more lucrative than writing a leadership book as he did.
“Would Mattis have added his name to the jeremiad had Trump won?”
Mattis did speak out against President Trump when he wrote a statement that was released in The Atlantic in June 2020 denouncing the Trump administration’s handling of the civil unrest in the country at that time. He specifically excoriated the President for utilizing the military against U.S. citizens. So it doesn’t seem like he was afraid to part ways with the President or play a political fence-sitting game. This was well before the writing was on the wall that the administration was doomed to fail in November. Perhaps people will even look back at that statement as the tipping point for when Trump lost the support of the majority of the nation.
Mr. Lewis wraps up his Mattis rant by repeating a well-worn talking point that Trump did not “engage our troops in any new overseas skirmishes.” That’s all well and good, but it fails to address the fact, as pointed out repeatedly by Representative Justin Amash, that Trump has also failed to deliver on his promise to end our endless wars. He also fails to acknowledge that Trump has expanded and escalated our wars in Somalia and Yemen, and that during the course of his administration there were more troops in the middle east than when he began his term.
In all of this, Mr. Lewis fails to actually address the substance of the article which was the pretext for his submission. He seems to mostly object to notion that Mattis “trashed ‘America First’” as a foreign policy goal, but he doesn’t actually address what the writers of the Foreign Affairs article actually advocate for. In their joint article (in which Mattis was only one of four signers by the way), the writers explain that America needs to be engaged in the world diplomatically and militarily as an early-warning system to protect the homeland. Also, they argue that we can’t disengage from the whole world and still play a role in shaping the future for the world in a more democratic and peaceful place overall. They are critiquing the Trump administration’s tendency to eschew long-time partners in peace over minor differences of opinion. They, rightly in my view, think that taking your ball and going home isn’t the proper, mature posture for the world’s largest superpower. We must stay on the field and make our case and support our friends.
There is nothing in that policy approach that trashes an “America First” worldview. In fact, they believe the only way to keep America first in the world is to be a part of the global diplomatic conversation and take our rightful leadership role in the marketplace of ideas on democracy and security for the rest of the globe. Their critique is that the “America First” ideal has meant “America Alone” under Trump and they believe “America Alone” is just plain wrong.
I really don’t see anything wrong with that approach and I also don’t see how that posture is at odds with a continued desire to end our decades long wars or a desire to bring our troops home. No matter what occurs, the United States military is never going to be 100% quartered on our soil. That is not only an isolationist’s pipe dream, it is also an enormously short-sighted defense posture. And we shouldn’t want to disengage from diplomacy throughout the world. That also isn’t aligned with a policy of “America First.” We can’t look out for number one if we aren’t looking out at all.