Thursday, August 1, 2013

General Mattis Condemns Feckless Response to the Iranians: Thoughts, Background, and Lessons

The former CENTCOM commander, General James Mattis, USMC (retired), delivered remarks in a recent Q&A session at the Aspen Security Forum with CNN's Wolf Blitzer (and is there a better name for a Pentagon correspondent?) wherein, inter alia, he criticized the Obama administration in no uncertain terms about announcing the discovery of an active plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and then doing precisely nothing about it.

Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller held a press conference in October 2011 where they implicated Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized US citizen from Iran living in Texas (and who knew that my sleepy, end-of-the-road hometown of Corpus Christi would be a hotbed of Iranian terrorism?), and Gholam Shakuri of the Iranian Quds Force, the overseas enforcement arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  The plot would have been carried out by detonating a bomb in a popular Washington, DC restaurant while the ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, participated in a dinner meeting, in an operation similar to the Sbarro, Maxim, and Matza restaurant bombings (to name a few) that were carried out in Israel.  Other bomb targets that were to be attacked shortly thereafter included the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, as well as other targets such as in Buenos Aires. 

Arbabsiar had been arrested and had already been interrogated, but Shakuri remains at large.  The plot as formulated required the assistance and cover of Mexican narco-terrorists, and but for the fortuitous intervention of an undercover DEA agent, the plot would possibly have remained undetected. 

The accusations, while not detailed for security reasons, were nevertheless quite specific to the point of certainty that some such plot was undertaken (DNI James Clapper later testified to that effect).  Detractors decry the lack of detail in the charges (see previous sentence) and quibble that the Quds Force has not taken on an operation of this sort.  This is beyond the splitting of hairs: the Iranians have carried out such attacks by proxy before, whether Quds had left a calling card or not, and Buenos Aires had already been subjected to a bomb attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building (there is a sizable Jewish population in Argentina) in 1994, killing 85 and injuring hundreds, as well as the Israeli embassy there in 1992 which killed 29 and injured 242. 

Such large body counts of innocents are part and parcel of that cultural terrorist mindset found in the Iranian mullah dictatorship.  The DEA agent testified that when he asked Arbabsiar in Mexico about the expected collateral damage from a bomb in a popular Washington restaurant, the reply was "They want that guy done.  If a hundred go with him, fuck 'em."  It was "no big deal." 

Yet despite the dire pronouncements, nothing has been done as a consequence of the plot.  Mattis said:
When we finally caught them in the act of trying to kill Adel, we had a beleaguered attorney general, a fine man but beleaguered politically, stand up and give a legal argument that frankly I couldn't understand. ... We caught them in the act and yet we let them walk free.
After a question about why the administration failed to follow through on some sort – anything – of a serious consequence:
Frankly, I'm not sure why, again, they haven't been held to account…. I don't know why the attempt on Adel wasn't dealt with more strongly…. We've got to be very careful of avoiding confrontation with Iran because right now with their cyber effort, they're like children balancing lightbulbs full of nitroglycerin.  You get the picture?  One of these days they're going to drop one and it's going to knock out the London stock exchange or Wall Street because we never drew a line and said, 'You won't do it.' … It's also very important once in a while that we say, 'This is what we absolutely will not tolerate.'
Mattis' remarks on the affair amongst the other topics covered during his interview were not reported at all by some services, but the tone and care show not just his intelligence but also his professionalism, this despite the fact that his bluntness over the years have given a case of the vapors to the Sophisticati of the Obama establishment.  This is likely the reason he was given the bum's rush in his retirement schedule (he was originally set to retire in August) along with other capable modern generals of our effort in this 'war with no name' against radical Islamic terrorism.  And he comes by his focus on Iran honestly: during his tour as CENTCOM commander, with the high-paced missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said that the top three items on his intelligence brief every morning were "Iran, Iran, and Iran".

He demurred from attacking Holder personally.  This could be attributed to the habit of following the legal proscription against commissioned officers publically criticizing high civilian officials (Article 88 of the UCMJ, to be specific), but instead I am certain that Mattis, as a gentleman, has no interest in playing the political game of 'who shot John'.  He is rather focused on the policy, or lack thereof.  But his famous candor may be loosened a bit further by the fact that he was accelerated along to retirement not despite but because of the fact that he has been a brilliant and forceful commander. 

Much has been said about General Petraeus being the architect of the surge strategy that won the American stage of the war in Iraq by the summer of 2008 (separate from the current news of Iraq sinking back into increasing sectarian violence), but Mattis was just as important to the effort in crafting that strategy.  It was a joint effort between the two though there were distinct differences in emphasis, with Mattis leaning more to the application of force in contrast to Petraeus' hearts-and-minds angle.  Both agreed to the bottom line, but there was degree of difference in their approach. 

Mattis is what is called a Marine's Marine.  His masterful balance of the need to accomplish the mission and his care for his men won him the admiration of the Marines fortunate to serve under him.  Some have said that he emphasized the enlisted grunt over the officer, in the endless temptation by many to cast the distinctions in rank as some sort of class warfare.  But that is off the mark.  His focus has always been on the warrior over the staff or support echelon, and that is rank immaterial.  Many who cannot fathom the culture of the military are shocked to hear that he is an intellectual (not so rare a creature in the military as they would think), and he has both added to the long-time Marine Commandant's Professional Reading List as well as developing his own list for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Possessed of an enormous library, he is particularly fond of what he would consider his default mentor, Marcus Aurelius, as much as he is dismissive of the computer "net-centric" approach of the modern Pentagon: "Computers by their very nature are isolating.  They build walls.  The nature of warfare is immutable.  You need trust and connection."

He likewise abolished the pernicious Effects-Based Operations model (in the same category as the old Outcome Based Management), which declared that results could be predicted based on quantifiable data: "It is not scientifically possible to accurately predict the outcome of an action.  To suggest otherwise runs contrary to historical experience and the nature of war."

He is the epitome of the warrior ethos that the Marines embrace, yet that has caused him friction with civilian political types who have no concept of or contempt for the military culture (or both). 

An early example was the reaction that stemmed from Mattis' off-the-podium remarks to a group after a panel discussion in San Diego in 2005:
You go into Afghanistan; you got guys [Taliban] who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil.  You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway.  So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.  Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know.  It's a hell of a hoot.  It's fun to shoot some people.  I'll be right up there with you.  I like brawling.
And he was "right up there", leading from the front.  There are stories of his journeys to the commands in his AO that would include tag-alongs with patrols that would find him returning with a few minor dings from close observation of his Marines in enemy contact, always ready to take the same risks as his men.  In fact, he even had his own 'jump' platoon which he would lead and deploy whenever the opportunity presented itself, demonstrating that in addition to the fact that every Marine is a rifleman, every officer should be at heart a platoon leader.  But the reaction to his remarks betrayed an ignorance of what the chattering class should know about a general in a war.  (John Guardiano, writing in The American Spectator, lays out a practical introduction to Mattis and the military culture from someone who served under him.)

His attitude has always been candid and refreshingly realistic, or "casually profane" as Esquire puts it.  One phrase of his that is one of my personal favorites approaches blasphemy to so many apparatchiki in industry and government: "PowerPoint makes you stupid."  Another shares my appreciation for the enormous problem that arose (and is still felt) throughout the US intelligence community when Jimmy Carter and Stansfield Turner eviscerated our human intelligence networks (apparently we should never talk to anyone who may have a possible whiff of impropriety) in favor of technology: "I don't get intelligence off a satellite.  Iraqis tell me who the enemy is." 

I have also maintained throughout my life, with increasing attention as time goes by, what I call a healthy sense of paranoia, particularly as it would apply to a combat zone.  So I also quite appreciate Mattis' counsel to "Be polite, be professional, but always have a plan to kill everybody you meet." 

His advice to his assembled Marines as he would travel to his units in Iraq was succinct: "The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event.  That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.  There are hunters and there are victims.  By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim." 

His expectation of his men was to learn about and interact with the Iraqis and Afghans, to converse with them on their level and to build a bond of mutual respect and understanding, and all that that meant, but once the enemy was identified the Marines were to quickly and effectively eliminate them.  This was primarily shown during the brutal fighting that commenced in the First Battle of Fallujah, when he changed the directive about closing with the enemy from "capture or kill" to "kill or capture".  He adopted from Sulla the declaration that Marines are "No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy" (a phrase which figured into the intriguing court-martial and eventual acquittal of Lt Ilario Pantano).

But perhaps the most quoted phrase of Mattis came as he met with his defeated Iraqi military counterparts in Al-Anbar province, as the new Iraqi government was beginning its early stages of being re-composed, showing his homework in understanding the culture: "I come in peace.  I didn't bring artillery.  But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: if you fuck with me, I'll kill you all." 

I have laid out a more than adequate listing of his thoughts in order to present his perspective on the earlier question of what, if anything, the administration has done with the Iranian attempt to kill an ambassador and God knows how many others on American soil.  He reflects an attitude of frustrated bewilderment that is shared with many of us, as to how an administration can be so blinded by a politically constrained legal rigor that has to be applied to blatant operations of foreign governments in attacking diplomats and our citizens on our own soil, an act of war so recognized at least as far back as the Peace of Westphalia, if not the Bible. 

Let me swing over to another explanation for those more obtuse and to those who would enjoy the instruction, that of the incident during the presidential debates of the Republican candidates in the last election.  This was during the debate that was under the purview of CBS News, on 12 November 2011, and was notable for the exchange between Scott Pelley and Newt Gingrich.  Pelley makes the common mistake of departing from his role as moderator in order to argue a point, taking sides in the guise of presenting a question.  The transcript of the exchange is provided but it is worth watching the video in order to catch the arrogant condescension of Pelley when he speaks of the "rule of law", and Gingrich's devastating rebuttal, to the delight of the audience.
Scott Pelley: Speaker Gingrich, let me ask you the same question.  As President of the United States, would you sign that death warrant for an American citizen overseas who you believe is a terrorist suspect?
Newt Gingrich: Well, he's not a terrorist suspect.  He's a person who was found guilty under review of actively seeking the death of Americans …

Scott Pelley: Not found guilty by a court, Sir … 

Newt Gingrich: He was found guilty by a panel that looked at it and reported to the President … 

Scott Pelley: Well, that's extra-judicial … 

Newt Gingrich: Let me tell you … 

Scott Pelley: It's … it's not the rule of law. [light applause] 

Newt Gingrich: It is the rule of law.  That is explicitly false.  It is the rule of law … 

Scott Pelley: No. 

Newt Gingrich: If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant.  You have none of the civil liberties of the United States; [applause] you cannot go to court … [sustained applause] … Let me be very clear about this, on two levels.  There is a huge gap here that frankly far too many people get confused over.  Civil defense, criminal defense, is a function of being within the American law.  Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law.  It is an act of war and should be dealt with as an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you. [sustained applause] 

Rick Perry: Well said.  Well said.

Returning to the remarks at the Aspen conference, an added perspective can be found in another of Mattis' comments during the Aspen conference on the subject of the attempted bombing, speaking of the Iranians:
They actually set out to do it.  It was not a rogue agent off on his own.  This decision was taken at the very highest levels in Teheran.  Again, absent one mistake, they would have murdered Adel and Americans at that restaurant a couple of miles from the White House. [emphasis mine]
That one mistake was Arbabsiar tracking down the prospective bomber in Mexico who turned out to be a DEA agent.  Up to that point, we did not have a clue that there was an undertaking of this sort or magnitude.  Once alerted, we were able to sift through the enormous accumulation of otherwise innocuous data to put the case together and to track all the elements.  The most secure means of communication remains the messenger, in an ancient system that shuns any other method that could be exploited.  As our technology increases, so does the complexity of our systems, which means that they can in turn become too fragile.  It would seem that the Iranians have learned this lesson, taught as recently as von Rundstedt's suspicions of Allied code-breaking while he was planning the Battle of the Bulge, or the similar Egyptian use of messengers that resulted in the surprise attack on the Israelis at the Bar-Lev line (their version of the Maginot, and just as effective) in 1973.  Once we had that warning, we were able to trace back and forward to uncover the details of the plot, showing that whatever we may say about our advanced technology, we must still rely on old-fashioned intelligence gathering of the most basic sort, active and not just passive, instead of a reliance on machines and blind luck.

And as for General Mattis, after the immense good fortune of a 41-year career in the Marines (and the wonderment that he survived not just combat duty but the more vicious political battles over his candor), one has to expect that he must hang up his spurs at some point.  And I pray to God that other leaders of such fortitude can grace this nation with their courage.


  1. Mattis is refreshingly blunt. Dempsey, on the other hand, strikes me as no more than a bureaucrat with chest candy. But Obongo take on the Mullahs? Ha, ha. Not unless he could sic the IRS on 'em. He's doing his best to fog that and every other issue. I'm doubtful that his current worldwide terrorist alert is anything more than political BS intended to draw attention away from Benghazi, IRS, NSA, etc. Time will tell. There's a few days yet to run on the Big Sceer.

    1. As for the mullahs, Obama says that we mustn't tick them off because we need them at the negotiating table, so they can talk us to death while they continue to develop their nuclear weapons program. The Iranians have even said so in their press, but Obama is too busy campaigning to notice, and God forbid our MSM saying anything that would make him look bad.

  2. I certainly concur about Dempsey. A telling moment in my mind was when he was sitting alongside Leon Panetta after the announcement about putting females into combat positions. Panetta, chafing to dash out the door, said that the females would have to conform to physical standards, but Dempsey couldn't help but jump in to say that the service chiefs would have to justify the reasons for the standards if females were generally unable to pass them. That was a window on his little weasel soul.

  3. They compete with each other--the feds---to be more-PC-than-thou.


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