Trump calls Mattis a “Democrat”
When he was first appointed to the all important position of US Defense Secretary in 2016, James Mattis could have easily be mistaken for something of an extremist. His gruff rhetoric in the past and his nickname “mad dog” presented the world with an image of someone ready for as many fights as possible. In reality, Mattis has turned out to be something of a moderating influence in Washington (by bellicose modern American standards). On the one hand, he is not a neocon of the Nikki Haley variety who believes military action as a tool for geopolitical policy making is a virtue. Nor did Mattis take as hardline a stance against the DPRK (North Korea) as Donald Trump did during 2017. Likewise, Mattis has indicated that he is not as hungry for war with Iran and Venezuela as other members of the administration, while his views on preserving America’s relationship with Turkey tend to be far more rational than those of some of his colleagues.
And while Mattis has never behaved as outrageously as some of his colleagues, in a recent interview that Donald Trump gave to CBS news, the US President indicated that there may be sources of fiction between himself and Mattis. When asked by the interviewer if he was aware that Mattis may be considering resigning from his position as Defense Secretary, Trump stated,
“Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t told me that. I have a very good relationship with him. I had lunch with him two days ago. I have a very good relationship with him. It could be that he is (thinking of stepping down). I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth”.
Such a statement clearly indicates at least some measure of a poor relationship between Trump and Mattis, not least because in Trump’s vernacular, calling someone a member of the Democratic party is about as big an insult as Trump could deliver.
Mattis’s anti-ideological “great game” strategy
Nikki Haley’s neocon tendencies to harass Russia more than Trump felt comfortable with while also taking a far more extreme line on Syria than Trump himself has tended to take along with her self-evident domestic political ambitious may well have led to her recent surprise resignation. But while Nikki Haley was far more hawkish than Donald Trump, Mattis appeared to often be less hawkish, at least when it came to Syria, Iran and Venezuela. This however by no means makes Mattis a peace-dove.
Unlike Nikki Haley or John Bolton who operate with a clear “Israel first” policy, Mattis is more of a traditional neo-imperialist who thinks globally rather than regionally. Furthermore, Mattis thinks in terms of great power rivalry, something that is generally anathema to the “Israel firsters” as individuals who have an unhealthy obsession with dominating the Arab world while neglecting other vital strategic regions.
Because of this, Mattis realises the futility of the Syrian conflict from a strategic perspective as the strategically important lands of Syria are now firmly in the hands of the legitimate government and their allies. He also alluded to something even more important, when he said that the US would consider withdrawing troops from South Korea as part of a de-nuclearisation process on the peninsula. If Syria is a waste of time for the US in terms of its grand strategy, Korea has become an expensive burden that is also becoming an unrealistic place from which to provoke China. The Korean peninsula is literally China’s back-door and as a result, even the slightest future provocation against China from the peninsula would result in a crushing response.
At the same time, Mattis has opted for a more traditional right wing “containment strategy” aimed at China. This multi-regional strategy seeks to use Afghanistan as a means of sowing instability in Pakistan – China’s link from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, while also using Afghanistan as a place from which to potentially provoke conflict in Russia’s soft Central Asian underbelly, particularly in Tajikistan. Afghanistan is an ideal location to both contain and provoke China and Russia, all from the same location. The fact that the ongoing US war in Afghanistan is keeping countries like Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan away from Afghanistan’s natural resources is just an economic bonus for a war intentionally designed to have no tangible end point.
In South East Asia, the US continues to provoke China by violating Beijing’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea. Even as Donald Trump publicly thanked China for its role in the Korean peace process, just hours ago, the US flew large bombers over parts of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing, in a clear provocative move. When this is combined with a close US alliance with a Sinophobic government in India, one realises that the US is attempted to use the post-colonial map of Asia to do what the British Empire did in 19th century Asia. Washington is trying to box China in by cutting it off from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean beyond by sowing discord in South East Asia, thus giving China no safe route to and through the already de-facto US dominated Strait of Malacca, while using Afghanistan and India to attempt and box China off from the Indian Ocean via land roots from north west China.
This is why all eyes should be on both Pakistan and Russia as it is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which serves as China’s most effective root bridging the Pacific to the Indian, while Russia’s Arctic trade corridor holds the potential of giving China its best access point to northern Europe and the Atlantic.
These are the real reasons why the US could gradually let go of an increasingly economically independent South Korea in order to try and provoke China in the South China Sea through the exploitation of ASEAN states that are on the whole, poorer than South Korea and more defenceless than North Korea. Likewise, in spite of what the President of France might say, the US is already pivoting its military assets from Syria to Afghanistan, in a move that has all the hallmarks of Mattis, a man far more concerned with “boxing in” Russia and China than in fighting a war in Syria which at this point is only for the vanity of Israel.
Vanity of strategy
While Trump and Mattis appear to share similar views on provoking China in the south east Asia and provoking Pakistan and China via Afghanistan, it could well be that Mattis’s comparativly moderate position in respect of Iran, Palestine and Venezuela was simply too much to bear for a US President keen on exerting the maximum amount of pressure on Iran, Venezuela and Palestine.
Otherwise, disagreements between Trump and Mattis might be entirely personal. Only time and future policy statements from other US officials will indicate what is actually happening between Trump and one of the more restrained members of his administration.