General Mattis’ Troublesome Double Standards

Retired General James Mattis is in the news this week for penning a commentary in The Atlantic on June 3rd criticizing President Trump for threatening to use active-duty military personnel to stop the looting and destruction of property (including the defacing of war memorials in Washington DC) in the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th. General Mattis’ article (and others like it) were generally well received on the premise that military combat forces in battle gear supported by armored vehicles and helicopters should not be used to terrorize a civilian population engaging in protests against what many American citizens see as a violation of their liberty and their subjection to oppressive behavior by government authorities.

While the main thrust of General Mattis’s article is his outrage over President Trump’s divisive language and his contention that a constitutional crisis is at hand; his condemnation of the prospective use of active-duty military forces in cities to quell civic unrest is a remarkable case of the pot calling the kettle black. To quote the general: "Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them." These are cringeworthy words for someone who lived through the imposition of martial law during the US military’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007-14. I witnessed on a daily basis armored vehicles racing down the city streets and the strafing of urban areas by close-air support US military aircraft in Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq; and in Kandahar, Qalat, Khost and other cities in Afghanistan.

With this background, I find it ironical that General Mattis was chosen to be the lead-off spokesperson for the Washington establishment for calling out President Trump on the alleged unlawfulness of his threat to use US active-duty forces to quell civil unrest and suppress the resistance movement in urban areas throughout the country. An inconvenient truth about General Mattis’ military background: While General Petreaus – a Princeton Ph.D. — got the credit (along with his fourth star) for producing the initially highly touted Field Manual on Counterinsurgency Operations in 2006; General Mattis was Petraeus’ coauthor in formulating this now discredited military doctrine that served as the conceptual basis for the failed surges in both the Iraq and Afghan wars.

As the above link notes, "This manual [as updated in 2008] is being used by U.S. and NATO commanders and forces in Afghanistan, and is the latest, fullest and most complete explanation available of counterinsurgency warfighting theory and operations guidance." The Afghanistan Papers, published by the Washington Post in December 2019, documents how the flawed and internally contradictory precepts of the "clear, hold, build" strategy espoused in this manual proved to be in practice. (Clear = urban warfare and hold = occupation and martial law.) In my memoir, I provide specific examples recounting how billions of dollars in US foreign aid ("money is a weapon system") spent on "nation building" — the third tenet of the Petreaus /Mattis counterinsurgency doctrine — were wasted while the infrastructure in American cities crumbled. As these wars dragged on and this strategy proved to be ineffectual, tens of thousands of US and NATO soldiers were killed and maimed and millions of innocent local nationals were killed or had their lives destroyed.

Thus, I see a double moral standard between 1) our country’s understandable and justified reluctance against having active-duty military forces patrol American cities to control our citizens’ rage-driven behavior; and 2) our country’s interventionist foreign policy – as advocated by General Mattis in both in the counterinsurgency manual he coauthored and as President’s Trump initial Secretary of Defense in 2017-18. US military troops occupy and routinely use lethal force to control the rage-driven behavior of the populace in the countries that the US has illegally invaded or otherwise intervened in — even though the populace in these countries pose no creditable security threats to America. In fact, General Mattis resigned as the SecDef because he did not support President Trump’s decision in late 2017 to withdraw US forces in Syria and Afghanistan (as President Trump said he would do a candidate) and instead let these countries resolve their internal issues without foreign soldiers restricting their liberty and imposing authority over their behavior.

In our country, governors and mayors have expressed their understandable opposition to having federal troops come into their states and cities and turn their streets into "battlespaces" to quell civil unrest. Imagine the outcry – as I heard from many Iraqis and Afghans local officials whose cities had become battlespaces – if foreign troops had come into our states and cities and attempted to impose order using combat soldiers and military weaponry. Even the possibility that foreign actors (e.g., Russia) were fomenting discord to fuel the violence in American cities following the tragedy in Minneapolis was cited in the media (and subsequently confirmed by Attorney General Barr) as being a serious breach of our national sovereignty.

Given the outrage of having unspecified foreign actors interfering in US domestic affairs, I hope readers can understand why I cringe when resistance fighters in the Islamic countries the US has invaded who are fighting to protect their historic homelands and preserve their way of life are referred to as "terrorists" by the US government and its media sycophants. This misrepresentation is done to perpetuate Washington’s costly Middle East wars even though no Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan national was involved in the 9/11 attacks; and no residents of these countries have been involved in terrorist attacks on US soil. There is no reality to the canard that "we have to fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here." Yes, black lives matter – but so do the lives of all people around the world subject to injustice and oppression.

I highlight this moral double standard in our foreign policy in my book by recounting my negative reaction – as opposed to probably 99% of all other non-Muslim Americans – to the 2014 movie American Sniper. I had sympathy for the little Iraqi boy and his mother in the abaya who the Bradley Cooper character kills as a highly skilled sniper when these two local residents approach a US tank possibly possessing an explosive device. Of course, I am glad no US soldiers were killed in this scene — although over 4,400 US soldiers were killed in the real Iraq War. After my sister saw this movie at a theater in Atlanta, she emailed me (I was then in Afghanistan) to say the audience stood up and cheered after this scene. Knowing that I had worked for USAID in Fallujah in 2008, she thought I would be elated. But my thoughts were the opposite: these two Iraqi civilians were savagely killed doing exactly what you and I would do in their situation as patriots of our country if foreign tanks rolled through our hometown. They were resisting the occupation of their country in a war that a foreign power had undertaken on false premises in its quest to gain hegemony in the region. Image the outrage if a rooftop foreign-army sniper preemptively took out protesters in a US city even if the targets potentially were going to commit a violent act. Would US audiences cheer if footage of this brutality were played on national television? I was troubled – but not surprised — by the faux patriotism this movie (and dozens more like it) engendered in the US public to cover for the atrocities our military forces are committing aboard.

I see similarities between 1) the protesters in our country who have risen up against overly aggressive authorities guilty of taking away individual citizen’s liberty (as exemplified by Minneapolis police department) and 2) the indigenous resistance fighters that our military forces encountered (and were never able to suppress) during US invasion and occupation of Iraqi and Afghanistan. The difference being the oppressive authority and military prowess exercised by our government in an unlawful manner to suppress the human rights of innocent foreign nationals is sold to the American public as a "cause of good;" whereas the use of military force to quell civil unrest within our country – even against looters and vandals — is condemned by the very general who advocated its use abroad as part of official US foreign and military policy. This incongruity recalls an Occam’s razor maxim: treat other people as you expect to be treated yourself. This means getting out of the regime-change wars the US has started over the last 20 years and not engaging in these inherently immoral purists in the future.

The other double-standard issue intrinsic in General Mattis’ recent Atlantic article is his righteous commendation of President Trump for his prospective use of US military forces in a manner that General Mattis alleges is contrary to the US Constitution and historical norms. Other presidents (Hoover, Eisenhower and Johnson come to mind) have used federal troops to relocate protesters and to quell civic unrest without a constitutional controversy. However, General Mattis is appalled that national guard troops were used on June 2nd to clear Lafayette Park adjacent to the White House. This was done so that President Trump and his entourage could walk through the park to do a photo shoot at historic St. Johns’ Church burned by vandals the night before. While this event certainly was unnecessary and showed questionable judgment and leadership; the deployment of US military personnel within the Washington federal district is not unprecedented and does not violate the US Constitution, international law, nor the oath that all military and federal officers take (including twice in my life).

If what appalls General Mattis is the use of US military forces in violation of the US Constitution, tradition, and international law, then he (and his cohorts now taking to the opinion pages of major newspapers) were strangely silent in November 2018 when President Trump declared that he was following through with his plans to withdraw US soldiers in Syria (a decision General Mattis had opposed as SecDef as noted above). However, at the urging of the Pentagon and pro-war members of Congress, the President relented and agreed to keep a contingent of US soldiers in Syria to guard the Deir el-Zour oil fields and deny the Syrian government access to the oil from these fields.

As several commentators (including me in an Antiwar.com original article and Scott Horton interview) noted when President Trump’s decision to "guard the oil fields" in Syria was announced: keeping troops in a country without UN or host country approval, denying the legitimate government (the Assad regime) of a sovereign country (Syria) access to its domestic natural resources, and conveying oil to a third party (Kurdish rebels) without contractual rights are all blatant violations of international law. Indeed, there is no precedent for using US military forces to commandeer the resources of another country in the post-World War II, post-colonial era. If another country did this, the US government would surely condemn it in the strongest terms – especially if it were done by a geopolitical rival.

While the use of federal forces to maintain law and order in US cities has quickly become a non-issue, the deployment of US soldiers to intervene unilaterally in the internal affairs of others countries and the use of our military forces to conduct illegal activities abroad (including the extrajudicial assassination of foreign government officials) continues with little scrutiny, bipartisan Congressional support, and scant media coverage. It would seem these ongoing transgressions of international law and this misuse of US military forces abroad would be a more serious matter to fret over than the deployment of active-duty troops to guard the Lincoln Memorial after vandals had spray-painted graffiti on other nearby national monuments the day before.

Of course, exposing these inconvenient truths about US military and foreign policy would mean taking on General Mattis’ beloved War State and the Congress’ beloved military-industrial complex. Why isn’t this immoral and illegal behavior abroad called out with the same vigor as the condemnation of the oppressive behavior being carried out by government authorities within this country? Sadly, the simple answer is that doing so would not serve the interests of those holding power in Washington and the compliant corporate media.

Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in the Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?