SQUIRREL! – While Press Focuses on Women in Combat Order, President Sacks CENTCOM Commander

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Traditionally, an outgoing commander does not make big, sweeping announcements potentially transforming the force. It’s considered a common courtesy to the incoming commander that you do not paint him into a corner or commit him to a policy he would not have undertaken. This is especially true with policies that cannot be quickly and cleanly rescinded.

This also ensures that the new policy will be diligently enforced, since it will be associated with the person who ordered it.

But the current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, issued a sweeping directive last week lifting the longstanding restriction of women from most combat arms billets across the Department of Defense. Panetta is in his final weeks of his tenure as Secretary of Defense – the Administration has nominated Chuck Hagel to succeed him.

If the President, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, wanted to make this change in his 2nd term (it would have been risky to do so prior to the election), then why not wait until Hagel is in place and let him issue the order? Why did he stick a lame duck with the job of issuing the order?

The answer may not lie in Washington, but further south, in Tampa.

Gen James MattisSources have been saying that the Administration is not happy with its CENTCOM Commander, Marine General James Mattis. According to the well-connected Thomas Ricks, a former Washington Post defense correspondent and now a contributor to Foreign Policy, the Administration was becoming exasperated with the Mattis because of his critical questioning of White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Sources now confirm that Mattis is being moved out of the post months earlier than expected.

Mattis took over the CENTCOM job in 2010, when GEN Petraeus retired to take the CIA job.  At CENTCOM, according to Ricks’ reporting Mattis had been exasperating the Obama national security team by bringing up the operational, logistical and strategic challenges of putting together a strike against Iran – mostly described by the phrase “and then what?”

From Ricks:

Why the hurry? 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, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I’d call him a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.

Gen. Mattis has a hard-won reputation as a fighting general. He commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and played a key role in Operation Phantom Fury, the 2nd Battle of Fallujah, in late 2004.

Donilon, in contrast, has no military experience. He is an attorney by trade, and reached his zenith in the business world with a six-year tenure as the Executive Vice President for Law and Policy at Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant that had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008-2009. While at Fannie, Donilon headed an intense lobbying effort designed to avoid close scrutiny by federal regulators.

Donilon was appointed the deputy National Security Advisor to Marine Gen. James Jones in 2009, and became his successor. According to Tom Ricks’ reporting, Donilon has a poor reputation both with the uniformed services and with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – a Bush appointee whom Obama retained well into his first term. Indeed, Gates is quoted in Ricks’ book Fiasco as saying that Donilon as National Security Advisor would be a “disaster.”

According to Bob Woodward, author of the book Obama’s Wars, Gen. Jones wasn’t terribly impressed with Donilon as his Deputy National Security Advisor, either.

First, he had never gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, or really left the office for a serious field trip. As a result, he said, you have no direct understanding of these places. “You have no credibility with the military.” You should go overseas. The White House, Situation Room, interagency byplay, as important as they are, are not everything.

Second, Jones continued, you frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with. Gates had mentioned this to Jones, saying that Donilon’s sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he nearly walked out.

Jones also admonished Donilon because of his poor relations with staffers.

According to the linked Huffington Post article, “Donilon did finally visit Afghanistan last March [in 2010] during President Obama’s six-hour late-night visit to the country.”

Mattis himself has been in hot water before, as well. For instance, he was counseled by the Commandant of the Marine Corps for his remarks at a conference in San Diego in 2005, in which he said “It’s fun to shoot some people.”

Incidentally, Ricks concluded his post, entitled The Obama Administration’s Inexplicable Handling of Marine General James Mattis, with these words:

I’m still a fan of President Obama. I just drove for two days down the East Coast listening to his first book, and enjoyed it enormously. But I am at the point where I don’t trust his national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.

The cognitive dissonance this contradiction warrants does not seem to have taken hold.


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