Trump Sec of Defense Pick: Enemy of Islamism and Iran

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President-Elect Trump has chosen Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for secretary of defense, eliciting widespread enthusiasm focusing on his status as the “most revered Marine in a generation” and factory of quotable quotes.

Deserving of more positive attention is his emphasis on confronting Political Islam and the Iranian regime.

General Mattis has advocated for significant changes in both the military fight against the specific Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, as well as the fight against the Islamist ideology that births them. Although ISIS’ caliphate is on the decline, General Mattis doesn’t settle for an encouraging positive trend. He wants to win quickly and decisively, yet humanely with care for civilians.

In August, he said the strategy still is “unguided by a sustained policy or sound strategy [and is] replete with half measures.” 

Mattis was one of the chief architects of the counter-insurgency campaign that turned Iraq around so rapidly that it even surprises many of its supporters.

In testimony to the Senate in 2015, he said, “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?"

In another speech, General Mattis said that the fundamental flaw in our strategy has been a failure to define Political Islam as the enemy of U.S. interests. He made the correct observation that such a delineation between friend and foe would allow us to identify supportable Muslim allies.

“If we won’t even ask the question [if Political Islam is in U.S. interests], then how do we ever get to the point of recognizing which is our side in the fight? And if we don’t take our own side in this fight, we are leaving others adrift,” he said.

He then referenced his recent trip to Egypt and the widespread perception that the U.S. actually intends to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. The failure to base policy around a rejection of Political Islam inevitably leads to a tolerance or even an embrace of Islamists who surpass the low bar of condemning Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Muslims who oppose Islamists are, as Mattis put it, left adrift.

Countless articles have been written claiming that a policy based on fighting “radical Islam,” “Political Islam,” “Islamism” and similar terms will inflame the Muslim world. Islamists and allied institutions will undoubtedly cry foul, as they always have at every minor slight, but the delineation will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Overlooked allies amongst Muslims and non-Muslim minorities will surface as U.S. policy forces the Muslim world to take stances on Islamism and its adhering organizations. New allies will be born as the discussion of Islamism leads to rejections of it. If messaged correctly, the U.S. will end up with more Muslim allies of better quality.

This view of Islamism as the adversary, rather than just specific terrorist groups targeting the U.S. homeland, is why General Mattis rejects the notion of a “moderate” Iranian regime. He was fired by the Obama Administration for his tough questions about the ramifications of current U.S. policy towards Iran.

General Mattis completely and utterly rejects the romanticized interpretation of the Iranian regime as “moderate” or part of the solution to Sunni terrorism. In April, he described the Iranian regime as the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East;” one greater than Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

We recently pointed out that four of Trump’s picks want to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and wage a long overdue ideological offensive against Islamism, also known as Political Islam. 

Trump then chose K.T. McFarland as deputy national security adviser and Katharine Gorka as part of his Department of Homeland security “landing team” to manage the transition between administrations. Both are strong advocates of an ideological war against Islamism and Gorka has advocated for the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act.

The U.S. war against Islamist extremism now enters a new, decisive phase, but let not our enthusiasm for this strategy blind us from the risks.

The successful implementation of the anti-Islamism strategy is not solely dependent upon Trump’s national security team. It’s dependent upon him.

If his decisions prevent demonstrable success, the ideological strategy will be considered a failed concept. Its advocates will have their credibility tarnished, perhaps unfairly, and the Western response to Islamism will be put on an indefinite hold as the ideology marches on.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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