In the spring of 2016, not long after The Atlantic published an article I had written about President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy record, I visited the Hoover Institution, a think tank on the campus of Stanford University, where James Mattis had sequestered himself in exceedingly comfortable exile. He was writing a book, teaching a bit, and trying to suppress, with intermittent success, the resentment he felt toward President Obama and his national-security team.
Obama had removed Mattis, a four-star Marine general, as head of U.S. Central Command three years earlier. The president and his advisers had found Mattis too militant, too insistent, on matters related to Iran. “Iran, Iran, Iran,” Mattis told me. “That’s the threat, but I think people got tired of listening.”
Stanford is serene and manicured and moneyed, and Mattis was very obviously enjoying himself. “It’s like I died and went to heaven,” he told me one afternoon as we walked to lunch, “and in heaven the weather is perfect.” But this was the first time I had seen Mattis since publishing my interviews with President Obama, and he was full of acid thoughts on the subject.
In these interviews, Obama outlined his understanding of America’s role in the world. He didn’t portray himself as a declinist, exactly, and he certainly wasn’t isolationist, though he was a bit too recessive and lawyerly for Mattis’s taste. What provoked Mattis’s particular dismay, however, was the manner in which Obama talked about America’s allies. His criticism of France, Great Britain, and various Arab allies of the United States as “free riders”—he was upset at their lackadaisical efforts in Libya, and in NATO—became a global controversy.