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Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis Picked By Trump To Be Defense Secretary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've learned something this morning about President-elect Trump's choice for secretary of defense. Lawmakers in Congress intend to proper debate over whether retired General James Mattis meets a requirement for civilian control of the military. A former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told us the other day this is a big deal.

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LEON PANETTA: The reason we've always had a civilian in that job is because we really believe that it is policymakers who ought to control the military and not have the military control the military.

INSKEEP: When the Defense Department was established after World War II, a law said that any defense secretary with military experience must have been out of the military at least seven years. General Mattis doesn't meet that. He's been out less than four. Congress can grant a waiver and has done that once in history, but NPR's Tom Bowman reports this morning that lawmakers say they're not going to rush on that. They're going to hold full hearings first.

Joining us now by Skype is Peter Mansoor, who's a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Iraq under General David Petraeus. Colonel, welcome the program.

PETER MANSOOR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are you comfortable with General Mattis?

MANSOOR: I am. He's a very talented individual. He's - has a personal library of about 10,000 books and he's read most of them on military history and strategy and so forth. He is a Marine's Marine who has served in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And he's got a really intellectual mindset about how the United States should go about protecting its national security.

INSKEEP: I want to pick up there on the books, the 10,000 books, because this is remarkable. There's a quote circulating by General Mattis about the importance of reading, that reading allows you to learn from other people's mistakes rather than having to make all of them yourself. And he is now proposed to serve a president who has actually said he doesn't have time to read.

MANSOOR: Well, actually he said it much more candidly. He said, reading allows you to learn from other people's mistakes without filling body bags with the bodies of your soldiers as you learn on the battlefield. And so in his very politically-incorrect way, I think he is a good counterpart to Donald Trump, who doesn't read books.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that you supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign, so you're no supporter of Donald Trump but you're a supporter of this general. What do you think about the civilian control of the military? Is Mattis removed enough to meet the requirement here?

MANSOOR: Well, I think he is. Certainly, we shouldn't go about making a habit of taking generals and making them secretary of defense. But given this president and his lack of military experience, I think it actually might be a good thing to have someone who understands the military very deeply to be counseling him.

INSKEEP: Now, we heard from a former Obama administration official who has some expertise in military affairs as Mattis' name was raised in recent days. Her name is Michele Flournoy. Let's listen to something that she had to say.

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MICHELE FLOURNOY: General Mattis is a storied and much-respected military leader. He is a student of history. He's a strategic thinker. And he also has real passion for, you know, the care of the men and women in the U.S. military and their families. So, you know, I think he would be an outstanding candidate.

INSKEEP: Let me pick up on something there though, Peter Monsoor - passion for the care of the men and women in the U.S. military. That's actually the defense secretary's job in a way, more than commanding military forces in the field. The defense secretary doesn't really do that but is supposed to maintain this gigantic organization of millions of people, keep it running, keep it as efficient as possible. Do you have reason to think that General Mattis, who's been a battlefield commander, is able to take on that management job?

MANSOOR: You know, he'll need a deputy secretary of defense who has spent much more time in the Pentagon than General Mattis has, but that's not unusual. Often you get secretaries of defense who come from the legislative branch, and they don't know the building, either. So I don't see that as an issue. Michele Flournoy, by the way, is not just a talented and bright person. She was Hillary Clinton's secretary of defense in-waiting. So for her to give General Mattis her support, that says something significant.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest a change in policies abroad, given that General Mattis wanted to be tougher on Iran than the Obama administration did and that's part of the reason that he left the military several years ago?

MANSOOR: I think this does show that there will be some changes, not so much in Europe or Asia but certainly in the Middle East. General Mattis has called for a comprehensive strategy to combat the various enemies the United States faces in the Middle East, especially Iran. So I think that you will see some significant changes in the Trump administration.

INSKEEP: Help me understand that. We've heard a lot about the Iran nuclear deal. President-elect Trump has talked of scrapping it or renegotiating that. But I've heard other talk of perhaps leaving the deal in place, but finding other ways to counter what is seen as Iran's aggressiveness or to be aggressive against Iran in other ways while leaving the nuclear deal in place. Do you have any insight as to what might happen there?

MANSOOR: It will be more of the latter. General Mattis has said that the deal's in place. We can't unilaterally pull out of it without support from our allies because the sanctions wouldn't bite as deeply. And so he'll find other ways to push back against Iran in the various conflicts that Iran is fomenting around the region. But I think what he'll do with the deal is monitor it very, very carefully and make sure that Iran is complying with every stipulation of it.

INSKEEP: And there are other ways to push back against Iran in the region without risking a war of some kind?

MANSOOR: Oh, certainly. Iran has proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq. You can push back against Iran without pulling out of the deal.

INSKEEP: Colonel Mansoor, thanks very much.

MANSOOR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Peter Mansoor is a military historian and retired Army colonel who served in Iraq. He's talking about President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense pending confirmation by the Senate. It would also require a waiver from U.S. law requiring any defense secretary to have been out of the military at least seven years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.