On Iran, Obama Should Have Listened to Mad Dog Mattis

Gen. James Mattis
March 30, 2015

With John Kerry currently working to salvage a nuclear deal with Iran in Lausanne before tomorrow's deadline, consider just how much the White House has been willing to sacrifice to get to this point. Even those supportive of the White House concede that some sort of general collapse is underway in the Middle East. They avoid those words like "collapse" or "chaos," preferring metaphors like the "shifting" of "tectonic plates" (this example from the Center for American Progress's Brian Katulis) implying that, as with volcanos and earthquakes, the Obama administration didn't cause what is happening, and can't do a darn thing about it anyway.

Friendly journalists, like the New Yorker's Steve Coll, express discomfort with the region's disorder, and timidly suggest that while the objectives of Obama's deal with Iran are worthwhile, maybe "a deal might achieve more stability...if it was accompanied by a broader political strategy designed to separate Shiite and Sunni fighters, promote autonomy and self-governance for Sunnis opposed to the Islamic State, reduce violence, and stop Iran from intervening in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Gaza." Both the Center for American Progress and the New Yorker miss entirely the fact that the current collapse in the Middle East is in no small part a direct result of the Obama administration's monomaniacal pursuit of this deal. The chaos is a feature, not a bug.

Coll goes as far as to suggest that today's troubles are the result of Obama "repeatedly following the advice of his generals, only to see their predictions fail," leading him to now prefer "the risks of nuclear diplomacy over yet more war." This remark oversimplifies on a number of levels, both because there are generals (like Martin Dempsey, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) whose careers have been ascendant because of their honest agreement with Obama's worldview, and because Obama hardly started overruling those who opposed him recently: how many generals supported a deadline for the surge in Afghanistan (2009), or a draw down to zero in Iraq (2011)?

But Coll's remark does remind us that the drive for a deal with the Mullahs has caused great tension between the White House and at least one high-profile military leader: Mad Dog Mattis. The Washington Post noted this weekend that Mattis was effectively fired in 2013 from his job as America's commander in the Middle East for taking too hard of a line on Tehran:

Ret. Marine Gen. James Mattis, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East from 2010 to 2013, was among the most insistent voices inside the military pushing for a policy focused on punishing Iran and its proxies.

Mattis lobbied for more interdictions of ships and planes carrying Iranian arms to battlefields such as Yemen and Syria, said former defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. And Mattis pressed for more covert actions to capture or kill Iranian operatives, especially after the foiled 2011 plot by Iran to kill the Saudi ambassador at a Washington restaurant.

The former defense officials said plans to punish Tehran were often sidelined over concerns that they could disrupt negotiations to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

"The Iranians showed that they could intervene everywhere even as they were negotiating on the nuclear issue," said Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the Iran Team Chief in the Pentagon. Mattis’s pressing on the issue caused him to fall out of favor with the White House and ultimately led to his leaving command early, the former defense officials said.

"Some of Mattis’s ideas probably went too far," Goldenberg said.

Mattis declined to comment for this story. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, he complained that the United States lacked a strategy for dealing with the Middle East and that its influence is at "its lowest point in four decades."

Compared to the dramatic collapse of order in the Middle East, the career of one Marine officer is a minor casualtybut not an irrelevant one. The administration forced Mattis out because it thought he was too belligerent towards Iran. But Obama's pursuit of a deal has emboldened the mullahs and their proxies, including Yemen's Houthis (the rise of whom has curtailed America's counter-terror efforts against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), made the White House hesitant to intervene in Syria (which contributed in turn to the rise of ISIS), and has convinced the Sunni states that they need to take matters into their own hands, contributing to the net amount of violence and instability that sustains terrorist organizations dedicated to murdering westerners. The radioactive cherry on top of it all is that if Iran continues on the path to a bomb, which seems likely even if there is some sort of agreement, the Saudis have indicated that they will also pursue nuclear weapons, expanding an arms race that will constitute an ironic achievement for a president who cut his teeth in the anti-nuclear movement.

Much has been sacrificed for this deal, and the fantasy of peace with zealots and thugs is putting Americans and the world at an increased risk of terrorism and and an ever-expanding war. The world would be a safer place if the president had listened to the Mad Dog.