News analysis

James Mattis, William McRaven and the revenge of US President Trump's four-stars

Former secretary of defence James Mattis was described by President Donald Trump as "the world's most overrated general" and "not tough enough" during a meeting with congressional leaders on Oct 16.
Former secretary of defence James Mattis was described by President Donald Trump as "the world's most overrated general" and "not tough enough" during a meeting with congressional leaders on Oct 16.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Revenge is a dish best served funny.

That seems to be James Mattis' view.

"I earned my spurs on the battlefield," he said at a charity gala in New York on Thursday night. "Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor."

Ten months after Mattis resigned in protest, Trump described his former secretary of defence as "the world's most overrated general" and "not tough enough" during a meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday afternoon (Oct 16).

In a speech disguised as self-deprecating comedy at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, the retired four-star Marine general made light of this.

"I'm not just an overrated general. I am the greatest, the world's most overrated," he quipped. "I'm honoured to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals. And, frankly, that sounds pretty good to me... You do have to admit: Between me and Meryl, at least we've had some victories."

Meanwhile, during a raucous rally in Dallas that took place simultaneously, Trump said it was actually wise for him to allow Turkish forces to invade and attack the Kurds.

The president celebrated the temporary ceasefire in Syria that his envoys negotiated earlier in the day, which has reportedly not held into Friday.

"Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while," he said. "Like two kids in a lot, you've got to let them fight and then you pull them apart... Without a little tough love - you know what tough love is, right? - they would've never made this deal." Trump boasted that "not one drop of American blood" has been shed.

William McRaven, a retired four-star admiral, is less oblique than Mattis about Trump. He wrote an op-ed for New York Times with the headline: "Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President".


The former Navy Seal and Special Operations commander who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein recalls attending a change of command ceremony last week at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Another retired four-star general grabbed him by the arm, shook him and shouted, "I don't like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!"

McRaven agreed. "Those words echoed with me throughout the week," he wrote.

"We are not the most powerful nation in the world because of our aircraft carriers, our economy, or our seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are the most powerful nation in the world because we try to be the good guys... But, if we don't care about our values, if we don't care about duty and honour, if we don't help the weak and stand up against oppression and injustice - what will happen to the Kurds, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the South Sudanese and the millions of people under the boot of tyranny or left abandoned by their failing states?"

Mattis and McRaven are the latest in a string of retired four-star military officers to speak out against Trump in just the past week: "There is blood on Trump's hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies," retired four-star Marine general John Allen said on Sunday.

The former commander of American forces in Afghanistan and the former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under Barack Obama told CNN that the unfolding crisis in Syria was "completely foreseeable" after Trump "greenlighted it". The White House denies that Trump did so.

"This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats," said Allen, who opposed Trump during the 2016 campaign.

"I said there would be blood but could not have imagined this outcome."

Trump's decision to withdraw "could not come at a worse time," said Joseph Votel, a retired four-star Army general who headed Central Command's military operations in Syria until last spring.

"The decision was made without consulting US allies or senior US military leadership and threatens to affect future partnerships at precisely the time we need them most, given the war-weariness of the American public coupled with ever more sophisticated enemies determined to come after us," Votel wrote in a piece for the Atlantic last week with Elizabeth Dent, who worked on anti-ISIS efforts at the State Department from 2014 to 2019.

"It didn't have to be this way. The US worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies... Yet Ankara repeatedly reneged on its agreements with the US."

Votel recalled first meeting Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi on the ground in May 2016: "From the start, it was obvious he was not only an impressive and thoughtful man, but a fighter who was clearly thinking about the strategic aspects of the campaign against ISIS and aware of the challenges of fighting a formidable enemy. He could see the long-term perils from the civil war, but recognised that the most immediate threat to his people was ISIS. After a fitful start in Syria, I concluded that we had finally found the right partner who could help us defeat ISIS without getting drawn into the murkier conflict against Bashar al-Assad's regime."


Trump populated his inner circle with generals when he took office. He said they looked the part and came "out of central casting".

They're all gone now: Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Mattis.

Others who were never on board with Trump have drawn the president's ire.

Last November, Trump lashed out at McRaven when "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked about his comment that Trump referring to the free press as "the enemy of the people" is the greatest threat to democracy.

Rather than respond to the substance of this critique, Trump called McRaven a "Hillary Clinton fan" and an "Obama backer". Then he said the four-star admiral should have caught bin Laden earlier.

Mattis closed his speech with a serious tone as he praised America's "Kurdish allies" and quoted Abraham Lincoln about the danger of "corrosion from within".

The 69-year-old lamented the "national paralysis" that has "supplanted trust and empathy with suspicion and contempt".

"We have scorched our opponents with language that precludes compromise and we have brushed aside the possibility that the person with whom we disagree might actually sometimes be right," he said.

"We owe a debt to all who fought for liberty, including those who tonight serve in the far corners of our planet, among them the American men and women supporting our Kurdish allies."

Mattis hinted at Trump's testy relationship with the brass during the comedy portion of his routine in New York.

"I think the only person in the military that Mr Trump doesn't think is overrated is Colonel Sanders," Mattis said, an allusion to the president's fondness for Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast food.

It's worth noting that Trump used his speech at the Al Smith dinner in 2016 to rip into Hillary Clinton.

At the time, many in the room expressed surprise that he wasn't very good-natured about the ribbing. Notably, Mattis referred to the president as "Donald Trump" in his speech and didn't use the honorific "President Trump" that he usually does.


Critics are faulting Mattis for not going far enough. They say it's wrong to trivialise his critique by making it funny.

"I'm just not in the mood to find this hilarious," Senator Brian Schatz tweeted at Mattis. "Tell us what you think. Tell us what you know. The Republic depends on people like you speaking clearly, quickly, forcefully. All hands on deck."

Many of these same critics also faulted Mattis last month for not being more forthcoming in his memoir. Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead is not a tell-all about Trump.

It's a reflection on four decades in the Marine Corps - with references to Trump only in the first and final pages.

The book is chockfull, however, of implicit and illuminating contrasts between Mattis's management style and Trump's.

"If you haven't read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren't broad enough to sustain you," Mattis writes.

"Any commander who claims he is 'too busy to read' is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way." Trump has repeatedly said that he's too busy to read.