WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Thursday he had chosen James N. Mattis, a hard-charging retired general who led a Marine division to Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to serve as his secretary of defense.
Mr. Trump made the announcement at a rally in Cincinnati, calling General Mattis “the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton of our time.”
General Mattis, 66, led the United States Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, from 2010 to 2013. His tour there was cut short by the Obama administration, which believed that he was too hawkish on Iran.
But his insistence that Iran is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, as well as his acerbic criticism of the Obama administration’s initial efforts to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, made him an attractive choice for the incoming president, whom he met for the first time after Mr. Trump’s election.
After retiring from the military, General Mattis told Congress that the administration’s “policy of disengagement in the Middle East” had contributed to the rise of extremism in the region. The United States, he told lawmakers in 2015, needs to “come out from our reactive crouch and take a firm, strategic stance in defense of our values.”
But in some important policy areas, General Mattis differs from Mr. Trump, who has been filling the top ranks of his national security team with hard-liners. General Mattis believes, for instance, that Mr. Trump’s conciliatory statements toward Russia are ill informed. General Mattis views with alarm Moscow’s expansionist or bellicose policies in Syria, Ukraine and the Baltics. And he has told the president-elect that torture does not work.
Despite his tough stance on Iran, General Mattis also thinks that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal would hurt the United States, and he favors working closely with allies to strictly enforce its terms.
General Mattis, whose radio call sign during the invasion of Iraq was Chaos — reflecting the havoc he sought to rain on adversaries — has been involved in some of the United States’ best-known operations. As a one-star general, he led the first Marine force into Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and established Forward Operating Base Rhino near Kandahar.
At times, General Mattis’s salty language has gotten him into trouble. “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys that slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” he said in 2005. “So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
But the retired general, a lifelong bachelor who has said that he does not own a television and has often been referred to as a “warrior monk,” is also famous for his extensive collection of books on military history. “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation,” he wrote a colleague in 2003. “It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”
General Mattis would be the first former ranking general to assume the post of defense secretary since George Marshall in 1950-51. He would need a special congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary. He retired from the Marines in 2013, and federal law stipulates that the Pentagon chief be out of uniform for seven years.
But General Mattis has strong support in Congress, especially on the part of John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a recent phone call, Mr. McCain urged Mr. Trump to consider appointing General Mattis or Gen. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff, as defense secretary. But General Keane has decided against returning to government in a full-time capacity.
The selection of General Mattis is a boost for the Marines. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be working with Joseph F. Dunford, the four-star Marine general who serves as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would also create an unusual situation at the Pentagon because the new defense secretary would be General Dunford’s former commanding officer. During the Iraq invasion, General Dunford was a colonel who led a Marine regiment that reported to General Mattis.
General Mattis led the First Marine Division during the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. He later commanded American troops during the hard-fought battle to retake Falluja from Sunni insurgents in 2004. As head of the Central Command, General Mattis was heavily involved in plans to counter Iran’s military and protect the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard and a staunch opponent of Mr. Trump’s, sought to persuade General Mattis to mount an independent presidential bid. And he was courted by both the campaigns of Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton to speak at the political conventions, but declined.
In a new book, “Warriors and Citizens,” which General Mattis edited with Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution fellow who served in the George W. Bush administration, he complained that politicians had relied too much on military commanders to make the case for their policies.
“President Bush left to Gen. David Petraeus the task of overcoming congressional opposition to the 2006 Iraq surge,” General Mattis and Ms. Schake wrote. “President Obama has been mostly silent on the war in Afghanistan since 2009; the case for continuing American troop presence has been made entirely by the military.”
Military commanders, they wrote, have a responsibility to carry out and advocate the president’s policies. “This does not remove elected officials from the responsibility to win political arguments instead of depending on the military to do so,” they added.
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