Russia

Gen. James Mattis quit as Secretary of Defense. It is no surprise that a man as steeped in military tradition would resign rather than work for a man who formulates his capricious military policies on the fly – without consulting the men and women who have made the military their lifetime study. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back must have been Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw troops from Syria. A decision made with no consideration for military or foreign policy — and without talking to Mattis.

Mattis, unlike his boss, is not the sort of man who makes decisions without consideration, due diligence, and assessment, So while the Syria folly may have been the proximate cause, it was a small part of Mattis’ rationale for his action.

His letter of resignation reveals, in carefully nuanced language, the factors that forced his hand. Let’s take a look at it.

It starts:

“I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.”

The language is mostly boilerplate. But consider the word ‘ideals’. By itself it signifies little, but it lays the groundwork for a fuller exposition of Mattis’ thinking expressed later on.

It continues:

I am proud of the progress that has been made over the past two years on some of the key goals articulated in our National Defense Strategy: putting the Department on a more sound budgetary footing, improving readiness and lethality in our forces, and reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance. Our troops continue to provide the capabilities needed to prevail in conflict and sustain strong U.S. global influence.

Again nothing exceptional. Just a light warning against isolationism.

And then we get to the meat of the matter:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

Here Mattis’ is clearly telling Trump what truly does make America great. He tells Trump his abuse of our allies is folly, and contrary to America’s interests. And reminds Trump that respect, not scorn is the key to maintaining those alliances.

He keeps going:

“Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.”

Mattis starts by sweetening the pill with fraternal agreement. Then he again hammers the need for alliances, most importantly NATO – artfully emphasizing that NATO comprises democracies standing up to tyrannies. He reminds Trump of who are friends were in our time of trial. And folds in the help we have received fighting terrorism.

Mattis then chides Trump for his other weakness, his vacillation and flaccidity in the face of our foes:

“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.”  

He doesn’t generalize. He calls out Russia and China as our enemies. And tells the Commander-in-Chief to man up against them and their malignant goals. With one more reminder of the need for friends to stick together.

And just in case Trump still hasn’t got the point, Mattis adds:

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. 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.”

Mattis, not so subtly, impresses on Trump that his knowledge comes from 40 years of experience and learning. Implying that Trump, on the other hand, is a dilettante with no interest in studying. Mattis again schools him on what makes America great.

And if we haven’t yet got the point he adds:

“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, having made a concise, clear, and compelling argument for America’s need to embrace our allies and face down our enemies to keep us great, brutally tells Trump his views are antithetical to those ideals. Reading between the lines, Mattis warns Trump he is weakening America, and, if he wants help doing it, he should get some clueless sycophant.

He finishes up with some procedural issues and more boilerplate. But none of that distracts from his cooly made points. And now Mattis will join all the other military and defense professionals who think that Trump is a dangerous moron.

But in our democracy, they cannot unseat a president no matter how damaging he is. But the voter can. So the task falls to you and me. 

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