President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday named retired marine general James Mattis, a widely respected figure in US armed services who is also called the “Warrior Monk” and “Mad Dog Mattis”, as his secretary of defence.
That leaves Trump with only the secretary of state berth, the remaining top cabinet position with international ramifications, to fill, having to choose from an increasingly contentious field of contenders led by Mitt Romney.
The president-elect announced Mattis’ appointment in a typically Trumpian fashion, at a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio Indiana, the first of a string of stops together labelled the thank-you tour, to belabour the point, thank voters.
“We are going to appoint 'Mad Dog' Mattis as our secretary of defence,” Trump said, and added: “But we’re not announcing it till Monday, so don’t tell anybody.”
Trump and Mattis agree on a lot of issues but disagree on some very crucial ones, including the use of torture and the Iran nuclear deal.
Mattis, a lifelong bachelor, really had no competition. But his confirmation may be tricky, requiring a congressional waiver of current law that makes it mandatory for a nominee for defence secretary to be a civilian for at least seven years.
Mattis retired four years ago, in 2013. But there is precedence. President Harry Truman got a waiver for Gen George Marshall, when he named him defence secretary in 1950 — he had been out of military only for five years (10 was the rule then).
Trump had given enough signals he was leaning towards Mattis, crediting him with changing his views on the use of torture as an interrogation tool. While the two of them may agree on a lot of issues, they disagree on some very crucial ones, such as the Iran nuclear deal. While critical of it, the marine general doesn’t favour its cancellation as do most Republicans.
This is a crucial appointment for India, which would be following it closely for signs of continuity, or the lack of it, with present defence secretary Ashton Carter, who has done more possibly for ties with India than any of his predecessors.
Carter first led the dismantling of bureaucratic hurdles to trade with India in defence technology, including sensitive technology under the US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative as deputy to defence secretary Leon Panetta.
Then, as secretary of defence, Carter saw the US acknowledge India a “major defence partner” for the purpose of fast-tracking defence between the two countries and co-development and co-production of defence equipment.
Analysts were unsure yet of the implications of Mattis’s appointment for ties with India, but a legislation currently on route to passage in congress will make it difficult for him or Trump to downgrade ties without repealing the law.
A section of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, the US military budget for the coming year, commits the Trump administration and all others, irrespective of who was in charge, to treating India as a “major defence partner”.
If passed and signed into law by President Barack Obama, which is expected any day soon, both Trump and his defence secretary will be committed to upholding that designation unless they can persuade congress to repeal it.