These days, I only take my eye off the ball long enough to write one of these spectacularly under-read blog posts, but such is the velocity of chaos in Trump World, that no sooner do I finish one and come back up for air than another horrible thing has happened.
The Chyron on the MSNBC screen when I just fired it up read: TRUMP CHAOS: MATTIS OUT, SHUTDOWN LOOMING, STOCKS PLUNGING, DOJ IN TURMOIL.
The Hell you say. Hunh. Well, that’s all bad, but here’s the worst: Jim Mattis is out as Secretary of Defense. His departure is framed as a resignation, and while it might be that he’s walking instead of waiting around to get the boot, it really looks instead like he simply couldn’t stand it any longer, as unlikely as quitting would ordinarily be for a man like him. It seems to be a resignation in protest. This is pretty much unprecedented.
We’ve come to expect this sort of thing in this clown car of an administration, but this time, it feels like a corner has been turned. That may just be a reaction in the heat of the moment, but I’m not so sure, this time it really was unsettling in a way that, say, John Kelly’s recent dismissal was not. For a lot of us, Mattis served as a sort of human security blanket. So often over the past two years, I’ve taken solace in thoughts like no worries, Mattis would never allow that, and well, at least we still have Mattis.
Of all the so-called adults in the room, all the human guardrails who’ve come and gone, none was remotely as vital to the mental equilibrium of strategic studies junkies like me than Jim Mattis. He was the buffer between Trump and America’s almost inconceivably powerful armed forces, the one who would stop him from doing something bellicose and suicidal, and almost as important, something that contributed to the general abandonment of U.S. foreign interests and responsibilities, which Trump always seemed to desire. Mattis was the steady hand. Mattis was, at the same time, making all the right decisions to maintain the effectiveness of the armed forces, especially in promoting maintenance and readiness over glamorous new toys that go boom. Most recently, he mandated a dramatic improvement in the operational availability of Navy and Air Force tactical aircraft, which had slipped to scandalous levels. He fretted over the increasing prevalence of inhumanly prolonged fleet deployments, and the way the carrier force was being stretched so thin. He was always thinking about how to do things better. He always has.
That’s not why he landed the job, of course. It’s more likely that Trump only appointed Mattis to head the DOD because he loved the General’s nickname, “Mad Dog”. Mad Dog Mattis, eh? Sounds like my kind of guy. A tough guy. As it turned out, Mattis was a cerebral, scholarly, thoughtful sort of soldier who studied history like a PhD. candidate, understood that raw force was only one, and not usually the best, item in America’s foreign policy tool box, and, actually, detested the nickname Mad Dog. It wasn’t hung on him because he ever acted like a rabid mutt. It was because he was a Marine. When your Marine subordinates love you, that’s the kind of nickname they give you. Sure, Mattis was known to be a resolute and unflinching sort of warrior, but he was as far removed from any madly zealous combat addict as anybody who’d ever held General’s rank. He closest historical analog was Omar Bradley, not George Patton.
It follows that Trump probably soured on Mattis just as soon as he figured out what the General was really like, and it’s likely that firebrands like Bolton didn’t much care for him either (though one of the unexpected benefits of Trump’s propensity to ignore all advice is that he doesn’t seem to listen to Bolton, either). It’s been rumoured, quite credibly, that Trump and Mattis were repeatedly at loggerheads over NATO, North Korea, Russia, Syria – the works, really. Trump’s recent announcement of the abandonment of the U.S. campaign in Syria will have been the final straw, but there were many other intolerable policy choices along the way, big and small, that must have factored in. There was Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter ban on transgender service in the military. There was his asinine effort to get a Third World style military parade going in the streets of Washington. The decision to cease joint military exercises with South Korea probably gave him dyspepsia – it would have browned Mattis to no end that this was both militarily unwise, and done to curry favour with an implacable dictator who was surely laughing his guts out back in Pyongyang. The way Trump insulted NATO allies would have rankled. The pullout from the Iran deal was against his advice. Trump’s insistence that his own intelligence agencies were not to be believed over the word of a kleptocratic Russian potentate probably frightened him. It’s also a safe bet that Mattis was aghast at Trump’s use of his soldiers as pawns in an expensive and idiotic exercise in political theatre at the border. He would likewise have been appalled at Trump’s repeated assertions that he might just get the military to build his stinking Wall, presumably using DOD funds, which would have been not only stupid, but unequivocally illegal.
A while back, I would have fretted that the departure of Mattis meant that we all might as well put our fingers in our ears and wait for the Big One to drop. I don’t think this concern is entirely absent, but thus far, Trump appears not to be so bellicose after all, not in the way I and some others feared. It may therefore be that the most soothing aspect of Mattis’s tenure, his function as a firewall against rash and disastrous military aggression, might not have been so vital. This is some comfort. Unfortunately, what Trump has turned out to be is the almost equally awful opposite of a war-monger – a stone isolationist. For America, and indeed the whole Western world, this is profoundly damaging. Like a good soldier, he kept his peace, but Mattis must have looked on in pained, incredulous dismay as Trump invariably favoured policies that involved the abandonment of allies, abdication of previously unbending commitments, and loss of international influence. It would not have escaped the General’s attention, either, that everything Trump did on the foreign policy front seemed to dovetail nicely with the malign geopolitical agenda of Trump’s good pal Vladimir Putin.
That’s the nub of it. In the end, Mattis proved incompatible with Trump because the General was determined to champion the post-war international liberal order, and the carefully assembled set of interlocking military and political alliances that support it. There are those of us who think the defence of that system, which has been crucial in preventing a repeat of global conflagration for more than 70 years, and has fostered a global international order most favourable to Western interests, is something close to sacred. Mattis undoubtedly thought so. The supposed mad dog was in fact perhaps the last in a long line of sane and insightful policymakers that stretches all the way back to the Truman administration, and the likes of Kennan, Acheson, and Marshall. Those men were giants. They were determined to build a world in which Western, liberal democratic values prevailed, and another war that costs upwards of 40 million lives could never happen again. Jim Mattis, himself no minor figure, was just as determined to protect the mechanisms those brilliant men created to achieve that.
He deserved better than the abuse of a tantrum-throwing toddler who probably couldn’t find Russia on a map of the Northern Hemisphere.
His resignation letter, which reads like something that came out of the Poli. Sci. department of an Ivy League university, bears reading. You can find it in full here:
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. 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 will be around until February. He would never have left his post in a huff, without giving the Commander in Chief the time needed to effect an orderly transition. What good comes of this last act of dutiful good sense remains to be seen, though, as only God knows what sort of person Trump will be able to dragoon into replacing him. Maybe some idiot. Maybe a sycophant who’ll simply do as he’s told. Pray he doesn’t shuffle Bolton into the job.
One way or another, the departure of Mattis is emblematic of a national security and foreign policy apparatus in complete disarray. I don’t know what happens next. At this moment, it feels like a state of even greater chaos is about to settle in. The point of his resignation letter is that Mattis concluded there was nothing he or anybody could do to prevent that, not anymore, probably not ever.
Leave with your head held high, General.
UPDATE: Trump, in a snit, has announced he’ll force Mattis to leave at the start of the year.