A voice of moderation

The firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as the key voice of moderation on President Donald Trump’s cabinet — and without one of his closest allies. The 67-year-old four-star Marine general had forged a front with Tillerson to curb Trump’s most extreme tendencies, like making a sudden break with traditional allies or threatening nuclear war with North Korea.
It was a quiet alliance, helped by the fact that Mattis’s Washington residence was near the State Department, giving the two a chance to talk regularly over breakfast. “I inform Secretary Tillerson of the military factors. And we make certain that then, when we come out of our meetings, the State Department and Defence Department are tied tightly together, and we can give straightforward advice to the commander-in-chief,” Mattis told CBS last May.
Tillerson paid homage to their partnership in a short exit speech on Tuesday, after the president dismissed him in humiliating fashion — by tweet. “I am told for the first time in most people’s memory the Department of State and the Department of Defence have a close working relationship, where we all agree that US leadership starts with diplomacy,” Tillerson said.
But it is Mattis, the battle-seasoned Marine, who has proven to have the deft diplomatic skills needed to work with the mercurial Trump.
While Tillerson and White House national security adviser HR McMaster have frequently become public targets of Trump’s anger, the Pentagon chief remains in good stead, even if he frequently disagrees with the president.
He has proven able to coax his boss away from inflammatory rhetoric and towards more traditional US positions. For instance, when Pyongyang last year blasted a ballistic missile over Japan, Trump warned that military options were on the table and insisted negotiations were “not the answer.”
Mattis, together with Tillerson, quickly dialled the message back, saying the United States was never out of diplomatic options. And he has continued to insist America’s response to the crisis should be led by the State Department.
On Pentagon affairs, Mattis can also quietly hold the president at bay.
To avoid friction, Mattis has studiously avoided tons of media coverage — as Trump has a clear dislike for members of his team who pull attention away from him. Rather than get in front of TV cameras, Mattis speaks to journalists on his own terms, showing up informally in their area of the Pentagon when he has something to say. — AFP