Mattis resignation will remove the one voice of reason in Trump’s inner circle

Trump never was fully comfortable with Mattis but the general is so highly respected by members of both parties and the foreign policy community that the president found it difficult to move against him.
Saturday 22/12/2018
US Defense Secretary James Mattis listens as US President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House in Washington, last October. (Reuters)
Unchecked president. US Defense Secretary James Mattis listens as US President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House in Washington, last October. (Reuters)

Outside of Washington the question on everyone’s lips is: Why did US Secretary of Defence James Mattis resign? Inside Washington the question is: What took him so long?

Mattis and US President Donald Trump never saw eye-to-eye on most issues, including withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (Mattis said the Obama agreement was better than no agreement), demanding that NATO allies pay more for defence (Mattis said alliance unity was more important), kid-glove treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Mattis viewed Russia as a serious threat to US interests) and blind allegiance to Israel’s government (Mattis strongly supported a viable two-state agreement).

Reports said that in his short period in office Mattis ignored a Trump order to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, talked the president out of pulling US troops from Afghanistan, resisted for as long as he could Trump’s desire to send US troops to the US-Mexico border to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing and persuaded the president not to withdraw US forces from South Korea.

Some regarded Mattis as the only voice of reason — the only “adult” — in a chaotic presidency.

Fundamentally, Trump is driven by an ultra-nationalist, America-first ideology in which all relationships are transactional (what’s in it for me?). Mattis is an internationalist who understands that US interests can only be truly protected through partnerships with allies and friends.

Trump never was fully comfortable with Mattis but the general is so highly respected by members of both parties and the foreign policy community that the president found it difficult to move against him. Several months ago, however, Trump in an interview suggested that Mattis was a Democrat — a patently false statement as Mattis, like virtually all senior military officers, never expressed a partisan political position — a clear signal that the secretary was on the outs.

Based on the timing of Mattis’s resignation, it was apparently Trump’s surprise announcement that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria that proved to be the last straw.

Of all the negative potential consequences of US withdrawal — which in effect was an early Christmas gift to Iran, Russia and Turkey — the consequence that may have been most galling to Mattis is that the withdrawal represents a near-total abandonment of the Kurdish fighters who, with US support, led the battle against the Islamic State. Mattis apparently could not simply watch from the Pentagon while the US president abandoned a US ally.

Resignation letters by senior officials usually are unenlightening. Not so Mattis’s. The outgoing defence chief wrote: “I have always held that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships… and showing respect to those allies.”

Further on, he doubled-down on this point: “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”

Most resignation letters include some complimentary words about the president; Mattis’s letter never even mentioned Trump, except to say that “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours.” Most such letters express what an honour it was to serve the president; instead, Mattis said: “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.”

Mattis will stay on as secretary of defence until the end of February to give Trump time to nominate and the US Senate time to confirm a successor. There is no clear front runner to replace Mattis but names are likely to be floated over the next week to ten days.

Trump has struggled to find anyone who wants to replace retired General John Kelly as White House chief of staff. He may have equal difficulty finding a high-quality replacement for Mattis because most prominent defence and military leaders are likely to hold positions similar to Mattis’s.

Mattis’s resignation came during a uniquely tumultuous period in Washington: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation appears to be nearing completion and, as it does, it appears to be closing in on Trump’s inner circle and family.

The federal government may shut down if a budget bill is not passed by Congress and signed by the president, laying off tens of thousands of workers days before Christmas because of Trump’s demand that the budget bill include funds for his proposed wall along the US-Mexico border. The stock market is tanking and interest rates are rising.

It is as if the Trump presidency is an elevator whose cables are snapping one by one — and Mattis is the biggest and strongest cable yet. At some point, that elevator will be in free fall.