Following America’s withdrawal from Syria, I reported that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s influence in the White House may be waning. It appears, however, that I was a bit too optimistic and conditions within the Trump administration and Mattis’s own discontent were far worse than I thought. That became evident when former General Jim Mattis resigned from the DoD, delivering Trump and the nation a harsh rebuke of the current administration in the form of a two-page letter.
Mattis is gone, or will be come February 28th, his resignation date, should the president retain him until then. Many believe that Mattis was a force for moderation and a steady hand within a White House seemingly marked by infighting and chaos. In an otherwise tumultuous administration, Mattis provided a steady hand at the Department of Defense. No longer, or at least, not much longer.
In his two-page resignation letter, Mattis noted America’s key role in countering Russia, China, and other bad actors. Mattis also highlighted the importance of NATO, an alliance President Trump has lambasted on numerous occasions, even as Mattis worked quietly to reassure America’s European allies.
While Mattis stopped short of directly criticizing the administration, his letter made it obvious that he believes the president has a different worldview than him. Many of America’s allies have found themselves on the defense, battling against not Russia or China but, instead, President Trump. And the recent pullout from Syria appears to some to be a concession to Russia and Iran.
It’s clear that Mattis believes that his own worldview and that of President Trump no longer sync. He made that obvious in his letter, stating: “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 position.”
Mattis isn’t abandoning ship. The Department of Defense is far too important for America’s national security for the secretary of defense to step down immediately without a predecessor lined up. Because of this, Secretary Mattis has agreed to helm the Department of Defense until February 28th.
This should allow President Trump enough time to find a replacement but it’s unclear who that replacement will be. In the meantime, Secretary Mattis has pledged to continue to watch over America’s defense and to ensure the well-being of America’s soldiers in arms and civilian contractors.
It appears that the straw that broke Mattis’s back (or willingness to serve) was the withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. While Mattis has always made it clear that America should not act as world police, he seems to believe that the withdrawal from Syria was premature, to say the least. He hinted at this in his letter, stating the need to be “clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to praise President Trump for withdrawing from Syria. Why shouldn’t he? The withdrawal serves the interests of Russia and Iran. Maybe it wasn’t President Trump’s intention to support these regimes, but the practical reality is that the withdrawal is a boon for both those nations.
For the Trump administration, Mattis’s resignation and rebuke may prove to be the most damaging resignation yet. While Trump and Mattis may have disagreed on many things, Mattis provided steady and consistent leadership at the Department of Defense.