You might not think a man nicknamed "Mad Dog" would put America's allies at ease. But that's the buzz here at the Reagan Library's annual defense conference, where Donald Trump's choice of Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon met with enthusiastic praise from the right, from the left, and from overseas.
It looks like the retired four-star's motto for his Marines in Iraq — "No better friend, no worse enemy" — is true of the man himself. Allies may be at best nonplussed by Trump, but they know what to make of Mattis because they've worked and fought alongside him.
"We have a lot of military personnel who have experience working with him," Norwegian defense minister Ine Eriksen Søreide told the Reagan National Defense Forum. Soon after Mattis was picked, she said, she started getting celebratory texts from members of the Norwegian military, especially members of her country's special forces, who worked with Mattis particularly closely.
"I'm looking forward to working with him, as are our military, who know him very well," said the UK's Secretary of State for Defense, Michael Fallon. Fallon pointed out to reporters that the general served alongside European allies as both NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation and as chief of US Central Command.
In both those jobs, Mattis has testified repeatedly on the Hill to the importance of allies and partners, said Sen. Dan Sullivan. That the US is "ally rich" while rivals like Russia and China are "ally poor" is a great strategic advantage, and Mattis is "very focused" on cultivating that advantage, Sullivan told the conference.
Of course, the idea that Mattis might be hawkish on Iran will not be reassuring to everyone. Yet even Leon Panetta, an outspoken Democrat — albeit one with his own painful differences with the Obama White House — endorsed Mattis without reservation.
"Jim Mattis, having worked for me as CENTCOM commander, is a great soldier, somebody who really understands defense, very thoughtful," said the former secretary of defense. "I’m pleased that he [Trump] appointed somebody like Gen. Mattis."
What about the appointment of a recently retired military officer as Secretary of Defense, a position meant to embody civilian control of the armed forces? Well, replied Panetta, the Senate will have to waive the requirement that any officer have spent at least seven years in civilian life before becoming SecDef, and that process will be a useful opportunity to discuss the principle of civilian control and make sure everyone gets it.
"We're quite careful in Europe to distinguish between campaign rhetoric and what an administration actually does in practice," the UK's Fallon told reporters. "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose," Fallon continued, quoting Mario Cuomo. " I'm not going to accuse Donald Trump of poetry, but, you know, we have to wave off some of the campaign rhetoric."