Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports that Gen. James Mattis, the head of US Central Command, unsuccessfully sought permission to send a third US aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region in January in an effort to deter Iran from escalating tensions in the Gulf.

While I have the utmost respect for Lake’s reporting skills, the story may have misconstrued Mattis’s views when it describes him as a hawk who as Lake puts it, “has often found himself the odd man out — particularly when it comes to Iran.”

In fact, Mattis, despite his nickname “Mad Dog Mattis,” is a prudent planner who seeks to prevent any incident with Iran in the Persian Gulf – and to make sure that if one occurs, it does not spiral out of control.The Barack Obama administration evidently believed that sending another carrier to the region earlier this year was not necessary. The Pentagon did fly several prominent US television reporters to US ships that sailed ostentatiously through the Strait of Hormuz – the choke point for tankers carrying oil out of the Gulf. Iran did not rise to the bait.

According to Lake, Mattis did obtain something call an “afloat forward staging base,” or AFSB, “a floating dock that can host smaller aircraft or launch the rigid-hull inflatable speedboats favored by special forces.”

Lake also has this interesting tidbit: Even though Mattis’s area of responsibility does not include Israel (which is under US European Command because US Arab allies don’t want Israel included in their area), he meets regularly with Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, the military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. According to Lake, who cites unnamed “US and Israeli officials,” “these meetings are not on the public schedule and are often over dinner with the men’s wives.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Lake’s story appears two days before the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany sit down in Baghdad for a second round of talks this year on Iran’s nuclear program. The insinuation in Lake’s story is that the Obama administration is being too soft on Iran and not backing up its vaunted “military option” with sufficient force.

In fact, it is mounting economic pressure on Iran that has brought Tehran back to the negotiating table. The clear preference in both the White House and Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Fla. is for a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Mattis declined comment in and on Lake’s story. In an email to Al-Monitor, George Little, spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, reaffirmed his comment in the Lake piece that Mattis is commanding his area of responsibility in an “outstanding manner and with great skill… “The secretary trusts his judgment implicitly on some of the most pressing security and military challenges of our time, including the war in Afghanistan. General Mattis is seasoned, studied, and the consummate warrior. He is also among the best of advisers, candid and honest, and always in keeping with—and in full support of—our national interests. He’s one of America’s finest military leaders.” 

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. This piece was originally published by Laura Rozen in Al-Monitor.

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