Guy Who Wrote Book Arguing U.S. Should ‘Talk to’ Terrorists Really Doesn’t Like Jim Mattis

James Mattis

Gen. James Mattis / Wikimedia Commons

People hold grudges for any number of reasons: bullying in high school, stealing girlfriends, or, in more extreme circumstances, framing them for wrongdoings. But no reasonable person would characterize wanting accountability for the murder of hundreds of U.S. Marines in a brutal terrorist attack as a "grudge," right? Well, you obviously have not read a new article published Sunday in Politico: "James Mattis' 33-Year Grudge Against Iran." Written by Mark Perry, who once authored a book in which he advocated that the U.S. "talk to" terrorists in order to stop terrorism, the piece describes the Marine Corps as a "cult" suffering from 30-plus-years of uncompromising, warmongering hostility toward Iran.

This "grudge," writes Perry, goes back to October 1983, when the Iranian government directed and provided the training for a truck bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, resulting in the deaths of 241 Americans, including 220 Marines.

Perry describes a 2008 Marine gathering he attended where he observed the animosity the Corps still holds toward Iran because of the Beirut massacre—and other violent acts carried out by the Islamic Republic since then.

"The gathering confirmed what I had long known about the Marines: They know how to hold a grudge," Perry writes. "Their anti-Iran grudge goes back to Beirut but also includes the Persian Gulf reflagging operation of the late 1980s (where the Iranian navy harassed Kuwaiti oil tankers, whom we placed under our protection by having them fly the American flag) and Iran's support for Shia militias killing Americans in Iraq" (on which more in a moment).

The piece goes on to portray the United States Marine Corps, which counts Jim Mattis—a retired general who President-elect Donald Trump nominated last week to be his secretary of defense—among its alumni, as a belligerent gang intent on bringing war to the streets of Tehran.

The ridiculous use of the word "grudge" in this context not only disrespects the servicemen who lost their lives at the hands of Iran, but it also downplays the strategic threat that an 80-million-strong nation-state with ballistic missiles willing to use al Qaeda-like tactics poses. Indeed, Perry repeatedly attacks Mattis for calling Iran "the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East," as though such a belief were somehow disqualifying or extreme.

Of course Mattis is hardly the only military leader or civilian to warn about Iran's malign influence and aggressive expansionism coming at the expense of U.S. interests. Even the professionals in President Obama's administration have said as much. Both the State Department and intelligence community have named Iran the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, with the latter writing in its worldwide annual threat assessment that "the Islamic Republic of Iran presents an enduring threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to regional terrorist and militant groups and the Assad regime, as well as its development of advanced military capabilities." Perhaps Americans should applaud a Pentagon chief who recognizes this danger and is willing to counter it, not criticize him as a warmonger caught up in a "grudge" over minor details like mass murder.

Perry also castigates Mattis for being "breathtakingly short on facts" by saying that Iran benefits from ISIS's existence. Perry should be the one checking his facts. Yes, Iran finds ISIS's slaughter of Shi'ite Muslims to be despicable and is fighting the group in Iraq by arming and training Shiite militias. No one serious, least of all Mattis, doubts this. The general's point is that Iran benefits from ISIS's presence in Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic Republic has an interest in not completely destroying the jihadist group.

Indeed, ISIS gives Iran justification to be heavily involved in Iraqi and Syrian decision-making, and an excuse to further its political and military influence in both countries. Its existence has also put the brakes on any international drive to get rid of Assad—a consequence of which would be only to strengthen ISIS. One could ask Perry why Iran is focusing its military efforts on starving the residents of eastern Aleppo, where no ISIS fighters are located.

Analysts have noted that Tehran has previously not attacked ISIS-held territory when that would be the logical course of action to defeat the jihadists. Perry also fails to mention how Tehran took advantage of ISIS's precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, during the Iraq War to undermine Washington's goals. Iran also supplied weapons and support to kill hundreds of American troops with explosively formed penetrators in Iraq. Maybe one could see how Marines whose friends were killed by Iranian explosives in Iraq could believe that Iran was not a potential ally, as the Obama administration believed for years.

Perry also curiously attacks Mattis in his article for making a statement that is irrefutably true. The Politico story describes how in late 2012 and early 2013, Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, had requested a third aircraft carrier be deployed in the Persian Gulf. The request was denied, and then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon got into a heated argument with Mattis over the issue. As Perry details: "When confronted again by Donilon, one of Mattis' senior aides told me, the Centcom commander snapped at him: "You're not in the chain of command; I don't take orders from you."

Weeks later, Mattis was handed a note without even a call from President Obama informing him that he was being replaced as Centcom chief.

Perry portrays Mattis' comment as "close to insubordination," but the fact is what he said is completely true. The national security adviser, a position that requires no confirmation, has no role in the military chain of command. His job is to advise the president, not issue orders to commanders in the field. Perry does not appear to understand this basic fact.

As Perry notes, Iran is far from the only threat in today's chaotic world and in many ways is not the gravest. But the Islamic Republic is the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and unlike Russia, China, or North Korea, has directly killed hundreds of Americans in recent years. The American people deserve a secretary of defense who understands this fact and will stand up for them, even in the face of voices like Perry's.