Best Thing for State Department Since General Marshall

By Amb. Brian Carlson

Click photo for screen-resolution image"The Administration’s intention to put General James Mattis in charge of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is the best thing to happen to the State Department since General George C. Marshall showed up in Foggy Bottom to become Secretary of State.

Mattis is one of the "outliers" — one of the few top commanders who understand that America’s enemies will not be defeated in a pitched battle on a field, but rather through the slow change of hearts and minds around dinner tables and tribal councils in countries in conflict.

General Mattis used to lead the "Pinnacle" seminars at Joint Forces Command in Norfolk. Pinnacle is the week-long, intensive leadership grooming for two- and three-star officers who are thought most likely to rise to the very top in the near future. Indeed, General Stan McChrystal was a participant in one of the Pinnacle courses where I was the State Department representative. The free-flowing and candid discussions between these senior, achievement-oriented military officers and a select group of current and former senior Administration national security officials is designed to get the participants thinking about all the levers of national power that may one day be in their hands. Pinnacle is the kind of rigorous intellectual preparation that you can only dream of State giving to its senior officers and future ambassadors, be they career or political appointees.

General Mattis made it a practice to chair every one of these Pinnacle sessions. His role, uncharacteristic for a four-star general, was that of an active discussion facilitator. He asked the hard questions of the participants, as well as the senior officials. He pinned them down about why they chose one path over another, what regrets do they have about a policy decision, what factors do they wish they had considered first. He posed tough, thought-provoking choices to the participants.

(The Pinnacle ground rules prohibit disclosing the actual issues, many of which are reverbrating within the government today.)

It was fascinating to watch these senior officers, used to commanding thousands of troops, visibly grow in confidence under his tutelage.

Like seeing a stop-action video, I had a sense that I was watching national leaders blooming and maturing right in front of me.

It became clear to me that Mattis is one of the "thought leaders" of the modern Defense Department — a man who co-authored the counter-insurgency manual often attributed solely to General David Petraeus. The complementary roles of civilians and military officers, the shared goals and respective toolboxes of State and Defense and other government agencies are second nature to Mattis. Best of all, he understands that America’s actions are speaking louder than our words, especially in the countries that come under CENTCOM’s responsibility.

Mattis lacks perhaps the flair for oblique speech so favored in diplomacy, but he nevertheless has an intellect and sensitivity to nuance that has consistently enabled him to succeed in complex foreign situations. He can be homespun and even coarse for effect at times, but he is supremely perceptive. This is a man who will never forget what his own role is, but who will maximize the strengths of those ambassadors, diplomats and development officers who are on his team.

And heaven help those who get in the way.

Because Mattis is a Marine, and he is intense about success.

Brian Carlson, former ambassador and public diplomacy officer, until last December, was the liaison between the State Department and the Defense Department for strategic communication and public diplomacy.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

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One thought on “Best Thing for State Department Since General Marshall

  1. “I came in peace, I did not bring artillery. But if you **** with me, I will kill you all.”- (then) LTG Mattis soon after assuming command of MEF FWD, to a group of senior sheikhs in Anbar Province.

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