Analysis

Trump's Pentagon Pick: Aggressive on Russia, anti-Iran, and Doesn't Mince Words About IDF Either

Marine General James Mattis, who reportedly loathes his nickname 'Mad Dog,' is the most level-headed among Trump's cabinet picks. He will most likely toe pro-Israel line in Pentagon, but had strong words about IDF's doctrine in Lebanon.

President-elect Donald Trump introduces retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as his appointed Secretary of Defense while speaking to supporters during a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016.
Gerry Broome/AP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who was sworn in Friday evening, seems so far to be the most-experienced (and most level-headed) of the cabinet candidates. Though Trump enjoys emphasizing Mattis’ nickname from his days in the Marine Corps, “Mad Dog” (a sobriquet that the general himself is reported to loathe), the incoming secretary is already signaling that there are key questions on which he differs from his president. In his Congressional confirmation hearing, which was held last week in the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Mattis took an aggressive stance towards Russia and a softer position with regard to Iran. “I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty,” he said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

This doesn’t mean that the general is pro-Iran. The Washington Post reported that as commander of the Central Command, in 2011, Mattis recommended that the U.S. attack targets in Iran in response to rocket attacks in Baghdad by Shi’ite militias supported by Tehran in which nine Centcom soldiers were killed. Obama disagreed, and did not order the attack. A year earlier, on the eve of his appointment, Mattis told Obama that he would have three priorities as Centcom commander: “Iran, Iran and Iran.” According to the newspaper, because of the aggressive line Mattis took on the Iranian question, he fell out of favor with the outgoing administration.

At the Pentagon, Mattis is expected to pursue the same pro-Israel line taken by his predecessor Ashton Carter. Overall, the relationship between the Defense Department and the Israel Defense Forces was not significantly damaged by the tension between Obama and Netanyahu. Mattis himself visited Israel in the past and among other things toured the Northern Command as the guest of its commander, Gadi Eisenkot, now IDF chief of staff.

Mattis, as was reported here in 2008, had severe criticism of the IDF’s conduct in the second Lebanon War. In that same year he issued a guidance document on “Effects-Based Operations,” in which he smashed to pieces the effects doctrine that had many adherents both in the IDF and the U.S. Army at the time of the second Lebanon War in 2006. From now on, he wrote, the forces under his command would cease to make use of that doctrine and its concepts. The reason: This is a confused and ineffective doctrine is counter to the basic principles of warfare.

The thinking on effects was at the core of the military reasoning in Israel in the years prior to the war. It combined with the IDF’s operational doctrine, which was formulated in a document issued in 2006 and suspended immediately after the war. The idea was to change the concept of winning, mainly in light of the need to deal with other challenges: terror and guerilla organizations operating out of “failed states” that do not try to restrain them.

The classical military concepts — occupation, control of the territory, destroying enemy units — were replaced by new thinking: Victory will be achieved by means of implementing a chain of “levers” and effects that will interfere with “the logic of the enemy’s system,” eliminating its desire and ability to fight. In this, the IDF would make use of innovative technology (precision firing, mainly from the air, means of surveillance and intelligence), which will spare the need for occupying territories. In the background, there was also the army’s sense that Israeli society was less willing to accept heavy losses to the fighting forces.

War is unpredictable uncertain and chaotic

An Israeli soldier covers his ears as a mobile artillery unit fires into Lebanon from its position near the Lebanese border July 25, 2006.
REUTERS

Mattis wrote that his forces had to go back to the old principles that had been put to the test, based on the nature of war. They had to make sure that the commander’s intentions would be clear, along with the mission and the aim. In his view, the greatest importance lies in the connection between the methods and means on the one hand and achievable aims on the other. It is impossible to predict the results of a military action with scientific precision, noted Mattis. This is contrary to historical experience and the nature of war.

We, he wrote to his subordinates, must assume that in war we will act in conditions of uncertainty and chaos. The Israeli use of the effects doctrine in Lebanon showed that “the terminology used was too complicated, vain, and could not be understood by the thousands of officers that needed to carry it out. ... Although there are several factors why the IDF performed poorly during the war, various post-conflict assessments have concluded that over reliance on EBO concepts was one of the primary factors contributing to their defeat. ... [The] doctrine was in complete contradiction to the most important basic principles of operating an army in general and is not based upon, and even ignores . the universal principles of warfare. It is a completely mistaken concept that could not succeed and should never have been relied upon. Other critical warfighting principles were overlooked or neglected in favor of EBO operating principles designed to create a ‘consciousness of victory’ for friendly forces and a cognitive perception of defeat’ for enemy forces. ‘EBO proponents within the IDF came to believe that an enemy could be completely immobilized by precision air attacks against critical military systems’ and that ‘little or no land forces would be required since it would not be necessary to destroy the enemy.’ This type of thinking runs contrary to historical lessons and the fundamental nature of war.”

A flawed doctrine

The doctrine, concluded Mattis, is “fundamentally flawed. And must be removed from our lexicon, training and operations. EBO thinking, as the Israelis found, is an intellectual ‘Maginot Line’ around which the enemy maneuvered. Effective immediately [we] will no longer use, sponsor or export the terms and concepts related to EBO.”

The Israeli conclusion, even if formulated less decisively, was quite similar. Since then the IDF operational doctrine has swung in various directions but levers and effects are no longer as dominant as they were a decade ago, in the military terminology here.