FILE – In this Feb. 6, 2017 file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands outside the Pentagon. Advocates are cautiously optimistic that a new policy allowing transgender students to serve openly at military service academies will move forward on schedule, despite the Trump administration’s reversal of a directive on transgender access to public school bathrooms. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
Yesterday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis tendered his resignation. The proximate cause was clearly the decision by President Trump to terminate the US ground presence in eastern Syria. While I’m sure Trump has probably grated on Mattis for a while, this is the first major policy issue that Mattis has lost that he really cares about.
Up front, let me say that I agree with President Trump that ISIS has been defeated, their core areas of control have been whittled down to where local forces can manage the situation and if that is the sole criteria we’re using to justify military forces, then fine. I happen to not think this is the correct decision, but, then again, I never thought ISIS was as much a bug as a feature. Sunni radical Islamists killing Shia radical Islamists and Iranian proxies–and being killed by them–always made me want to buy popcorn. I’m firmly convinced that we will, in the near future, look back on this decision the same way we now understand the precipitous US withdrawal from Somalia as teaching al Qaeda that a few losses would make the US retreat. No one, however, should deny that President Trump has every right to decide that the current policy does not comport with his vision and change it. And he, and he alone, in this case, will bear ultimate ownership of what happens next–good or ill.
But let’s be serious, most of the angst in the media over the decision and Mattis’ resignation is just OrangeManBad. A great number of the voices sniping at the administration over this decision were, a few weeks ago, busily sniping away at the administration for being in Syria at all:
This sort of thing is why criticism of Trump from the left side on this stuff is so transparently insincere. https://t.co/HYlOF6R9Oo
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) December 21, 2018
I’ve always admired Mattis. He is one of a handful of general and flag officers who embody the ethos of the professional man-at-arms. He voiced his disagreement with the Obama administration’s coddling of Iran and was fired for his efforts:
President Barack Obama fired General James Mattis, the head of Central Command, without even calling the general to let him know he was being replaced.
“I am told that General Mattis was travelling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House,” Thomas E. Ricks reports.
In another post, Ricks says Mattis was fired because:
Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”
There is also a belief that Mattis and Obama differed on Iran. “A particular point of disagreement was what to do about mischief Iran is exporting to other countries. Mattis is indeed more hawkish on this than the White House was,” writes Ricks in yet another post.
“National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in particular was irked by Mattis’s insistence on being heard. I cringe when I hear about civilians shutting down strategic discussions. That is exactly what the Bush administration did in late 2002 when generals persisted in questioning whether it was wise to invade Iraq. That led to what some might call a fiasco.”
Mattis packed his stuff. He retired. And, to this day, he has yet to hit the talk shows or the speech circuit and bitch about that administration’s decision or the way he was treated. Because actual men don’t do that. And, in the fullness of time, he’s been proven not only right but prescient.
With all of that up front ranting out of the way, this is my take. Mattis, as a student of history, was probably very aware of the parable of Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson who considered resigning to protest the build-up of troops in Vietnam. In fact, he’d already taken his stars off and was in his staff car on the way to the White House to deliver them when he convinced himself that his resignation would be an insignificant act and he would lose his ability to shape future actions. I think this was on Mattis’ mind but, like Johnson, by bailing he has lost his ability to influence future events. TANSTAAFL.
More to that, I think Mattis lives by a code of loyalty. I know when I was an ROTC cadet, this was hammered into us. It was on a poster in the ROTC office.
If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him, speak well of him, and stand by the institution he represents. Remember, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you must growl, condemn, and eternally find fault – resign your position, and when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content – but as long as you are part of the institution, do not condemn it. If you do, the first high wind that comes along will blow you away, and probably you will never know why.
My guess is that Mattis has reached a point where he no longer believes he can work for President Trump and his only options are to accept a way of doing business that he opposes or to carry out a guerrilla war against the President, and he is too much a professional to do that (and I think, properly understood, this is much more a function of Trump beginning to play in Mattis’s sandbox without regard to his advice because that is just the way he operates. The whole “Space Force” thing happened over the kicking and screaming of Mattis’ office.)
As Mattis said in his resignation letter:
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my positions.
I don’t think Mattis’ departure is any kind of a body blow to the Republic. The graveyards are, after all, full of indispensable men. Neither is Mattis’ departure all that quick. When he leaves he will have been the longest serving Secretary of Defense since Robert Gates. I also doubt that Mattis is going to be giving interviews on the subject.
What we will lose with Mattis is decades of experience and mountains of integrity at a critical time. We can expect his successor to be someone much more interested in making budget and procurement trains run on time and malleable enough to allow a headstrong president to do what he wants in regards to Defense policy. And that is not a good place for us to be right now. But now, as much as when he was leading Marines in combat, Mattis leaves us with an example of manly and professional behavior that Washington should strive to emulate.
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