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.”
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 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.
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.”
After Mr. Trump met with General Mattis at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey on Nov. 19, the president-elect said on Twitter that he was “very impressive” and “a true general’s general.” On Thursday, Mr. Trump surprised the Cincinnati crowd with the announcement, saying: “I gave up a little secret.” He added that he would formally announce General Mattis’s appointment on Monday.
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.”