NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, delivered a harsh critique of the Obama administration’s defense and national security policies this week — without ever mentioning the president or his security team by name.
Gen. Mattis, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, pulled no punches in criticizing policies and strategies ranging from confronting Chinese bullying in Asia and pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan to sharp defense cuts and putting women into combat roles.
The former four-star general, who held the Centcom post from 2010 until his retirement in 2013, said international order is breaking down and requires sustained American leadership to promote freedom. He called on America “to adapt to changing circumstances, to come out now from our reactive crouch and take a firm, strategic stance in defense of our values.”
Calling for a “refreshed national strategy,” Gen. Mattis urged Congress to play a key role in crafting a more coherent way forward.
“Doing so requires us to look beyond the events that are currently consuming the executive branch,” he said Tuesday. “There’s an urgent need to stop reacting to each immediate vexing issue in isolation. Such response often creates unanticipated second-order effects and even more problems for us.”
Posing a series of questions for the committee, Gen. Mattis called first for the panel to bolster U.S. intelligence about threats to national security so the military can have more warnings of dangers.
“Today, ladies and gentlemen, we have less military shock absorber in our smaller military, so less ability to take surprise in stride, and fewer forward-deployed forces overseas to act as sentinels. Accordingly, we need more early warning,” he said.
Gen. Mattis said it is also imperative to halt the damage caused by the across-the-board defense spending cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act. “No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving today,” he said. “This committee must lead the effort to repeal sequestration that is costing military readiness and long-term capability, while sapping our troops’ morale.”
Noting that U.S. influence in the Middle East is at the lowest point in 40 years, Gen. Mattis urged setting up a new security architecture that would allow the United States to “take our own side in this fight” against political Islam.
“The fundamental question I believe is, ‘Is political Islam in our best interest?’ If not, what is our policy to authoritatively support the countervailing forces?”
Gen. Mattis said violent jihadi terrorists cannot be allowed to hide behind false religious garb and at the same time “leave us unwilling to define this threat with the clarity it deserves.”
Outlining a counterterrorism strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq in September, Mr. Obama said the United States would seek to counter the ideology of Islamic terrorists. The administration, however, has done little in the way of undermining radical Islamic terrorist ideology and appears to have banned use of the term “Islam” in describing terrorist threats.
Gen. Mattis noted that potential U.S. allies around the world are ready to support the United States, but “we have not been clear about where we stand in defining or dealing with the growing violent jihadi terrorist threat.”
On Afghanistan, he indirectly criticized Mr. Obama’s policy of setting a deadline for pulling out U.S. troops and warned that gains in Afghanistan are reversible and could be a repeat of the failures of U.S. policy taking place in Iraq.
“Notifying the enemy in advance of our withdrawal dates or reassuring the enemy that we will not use certain capabilities like our ground forces should be avoided,” he said.
A smaller U.S. military must fight across the spectrum of conflict from nuclear war to counterinsurgency to cyberwar, he said, adding that nuclear forces must be upgraded and possibly reduced to bomber and submarine forces without land-based missiles.
Gen. Mattis called for building more naval power and warships in light of Beijing’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea. “While our efforts in the Pacific to keep positive relations with China are well and good, these efforts must be paralleled by a policy to build the counterbalance if China continues to expand its bullying role in the South China Sea and elsewhere,” he said.
China must be denied “veto power” over the territorial claims, security and economic conditions in the Pacific.
On Russia, Gen. Mattis said “we must ask if the NATO alliance efforts have adjusted to the unfortunate and dangerous mode the Russian leadership has slipped into” — a reference to Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea and continuing armed support to pro-Russian separatist rebels in the eastern part of the country.
Gen. Mattis hit the administration for a lack of detainee policy, an outgrowth of Mr. Obama’s push to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We have observed the perplexing lack of detainee policy that has resulted in the return of released prisoners to the battlefield,” he said. “We should not engage in another fight without resolving this issue up front.”
In a criticism of the administration’s social engineering policies in the military, such as allowing gays to serve openly and planning to integrate women into combat roles, the retired Marine issued a warning.
“No matter how laudable in terms of a progressive country’s instincts, this committee needs to consider carefully any proposed changes to military rules, traditions and standards that bring non-combat emphasis to combat units,” he said.
“There is a great difference between military service in dangerous circumstances and serving in a combat unit whose role is to search out, close with and kill the enemy at close quarters,” he said.
Fixing the country’s faulty defense strategy is urgent “because in an interconnected age when opportunistic adversaries can work in tandem to destroy stability and prosperity, our country needs to regain its strategic footing,” Gen. Mattis said. “We need to bring the clarity to our efforts before we lose the confidence of the American people and the support of potential allies.”
Obama criticized on captive policy
A key House Republican voice on defense policy wrote to President Obama this week questioning whether the administration has a coherent policy on dealing with hostages abroad.
In a letter sent Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, questioned the statements of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Sunday that the United States doesn’t pay ransom or give in to demands for the release of hostages when dealing with terrorist groups.
“This statement blatantly contradicts the fact that five terrorists were traded for [Army Sgt.] Bowe Bergdahl,” he stated, adding that the comments fail to acknowledge that exchanging Sgt. Bergdahl for five terrorists “reshuffled the deck for all other Americans in captivity.”
Mr. Hunter specifically asked who authorized the release of al Qaeda operative Ali Saleh Al-Marri as part of the Bergdahl swap.
CIA Benghazi secrets
The special House committee examining the 2012 al Qaeda terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans is continuing to fight with the Obama administration over the release of documents needed by the panel.
During a hearing Tuesday, the committee, known formally as the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi, heard testimony from Neill Higgins, the CIA’s director of congressional affairs.
Mr. Higgins said that on Jan. 23 the CIA “began production of more than 1,000 highly sensitive documents requested by the committee.”
The committee has begun reviewing the documents in an effort to clarify what the two dozen CIA officers and contractors were doing in Benghazi as part of a covert operation.
As for interviews with CIA officials, Mr. Higgins said: “We will work with the committee to respond to such requests in a timely fashion.”
The CIA operation in Benghazi remains clouded in secrecy despite several federal inquiries and investigations. It appears the special committee is preparing to unravel American intelligence officers and contractors were doing in Benghazi as part of its probe.
“It is essential we talk to every witness with knowledge and examine all relevant evidence,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the special panel.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.