"Guess we now know why former Defense Secretary Mattis has not been publicly critical of Trump," quipped one observer.
Before becoming former President Donald Trump's defense secretary, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis secretly worked for the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates while the United States was supporting the monarchy in the Saudi-led war on Yemen, a Washington Post investigation revealed Tuesday.
Records obtained by the Post show that in June 2015, Mattis—then a recently retired four-star general—applied to work as a personal consultant to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who at the time was also the deputy supreme commander of the UAE military.
Mohamed, who became the UAE's president following the 2022 death of his brother Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, sought Mattis' counsel as the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen's civil war was killing a staggering number of civilians while making little progress toward defeating Houthi rebels.
In his application to work as an agent for a foreign government, Mattis—who had earned the moniker "Mad Dog" during one of the 2004 battles for Fallujah, Iraq in which hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded by American forces—wrote that "my duties would include reviewing the UAE's military situation, focused initially on the Yemen campaign, with the purpose of providing military advice."
"The purpose of this position is to bring American military experience in warfighting and campaigning to bear in terms of strengthening UAE's efforts," he explained.
"I will be compensated," Mattis added. However, Robert Tyrer, co-president of the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm where Mattis works as a senior counselor, told the Post that the UAE did not pay Mattis for his work, and that the former defense secretary at the time had a "long-standing policy" of not taking payment from foreign officials.
Mattis' request was approved by Marine Corps brass, and then in August 2015 by the State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. While a handful of federal officials knew of his work for Mohamed, "other national security officials said they did not—including diplomats in charge of U.S. policy in the Middle East," according to the Post.
"This whole thing is very curious," Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs at the time, told the paper. "I find it kind of hard to believe he would never have mentioned it to any of us. Mattis as you know is a pretty straight shooter, so I would have thought he would have briefed somebody."
Mattis worked for Mohamed at the same time as the United States was participating in the Saudi-led war. Then-President Barack Obama announced in March 2015 that U.S. forces—which had already been conducting drone strikes in Yemen—would provide "logistical and intelligence support" to the coalition. That assistance included refueling the Saudi and Emirati warplanes that were bombing Yemeni targets and killing thousands of civilians.
"This whole thing is very curious. I find it kind of hard to believe he would never have mentioned it to any of us."
The secrecy surrounding Mattis' work for Mohamed continued even after he returned to the Pentagon in January 2017 to serve as Trump's defense secretary. According to the Post: "He omitted it from his public work history and financial disclosure forms that he filed with the Office of Government Ethics. Though he reported it confidentially to the Senate Armed Services Committee, multiple senators said they were not informed."
In August 2018, United Nations human rights officials reported that nearly 17,000 civilians had been killed in Yemen, mostly by Saudi-led airstrikes. In the face of mounting evidence of coalition war crimes, Mattis warned that the Trump administration was considering suspending support for the coalition if it did not reduce civilian casualties.
This, a little over a year after Mattis declared that "civilian casualties are a fact of life" and announced that U.S. forces were adopting a policy of "annihilation" in the battle against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, where American bombs and bullets were killing thousands of noncombatants.
After resigning as defense secretary over Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and dramatically reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, Mattis returned to the private sector and again applied to work for the Emirati government, which paid him $100,000 plus airfare and lodging for a series of May 2019 talks on U.S.-UAE relations.