The worrisome meaning of Mattis’ departure

Give Donald Trump credit: Just as he was being overwhelmed with a stalemate over the budget and what he has called his “beautiful” wall, with the conviction and sentencing of his former attorney Michael Cohen and the court appearance of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, he was able to get the 24-hour news cycle to focus instead on his tweeted plan to withdraw forces from Syria, his decision to draw down American forces in Afghanistan and, of the greatest consequence, his acceptance of James Mattis’ resignation, which he ludicrously termed the secretary of Defense’s “retirement.”

Mattis was the one truly credible voice of the administration in matters of national security. Universally recognized as a man of bedrock integrity, he was able to retain the trust of America’s allies at a time when the president showed far more favor to her adversaries. Mattis made it clear that Russia and China posed the greatest threat to American interests and those of her allies. Indeed, he saw better than most that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prime objective was to undermine the NATO alliance, something that Joseph Stalin and his Soviet successors never managed to accomplish.

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Moreover, Mattis backed his words with deeds: He presided over the largest defense budgets in American history and ensured that funds were made available to bolster America’s deterrent in Europe, thereby increasing pressure on the European NATO allies to increase their own defense expenditures. He authorized the largest maritime exercise in the North Atlantic since the end of the Cold War, making it clear to Russia that there were limits to American tolerance of its predations.

Mattis clearly would have preferred the continuation of large-scale exercises with the forces of the Republic of Korea, which were suspended on President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE’s orders. But he continued to support important freedom of navigation operations in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan strait, sending a message to China that although it might be a rising power, American interests were not to be trifled with.

Mattis increasingly found himself in an impossible position vis-a-vis the White House and the president. In the early days of the administration, he was able to walk the president back from his most inflammatory statements about NATO. Several months later he was able to convince the president to maintain a significant military presence in Afghanistan. He was a goodwill ambassador to foreign governments at a time when the president continued to send mixed signals about America’s role on the international stage. But he had to swallow bitter pills as well. He stoically deployed troops to the Mexican border, knowing full well that they could be employed far more efficiently elsewhere. And he remained silent when the president characterized him as “a sort of Democrat.”

But the president’s abrupt decision on the withdrawal of Syrian forces ultimately was a bridge too far for Mattis. As his resignation letter made abundantly clear, Mattis fundamentally disagreed with Trump as to how allies should be treated and adversaries confronted. He made  clear that, whereas Trump was nothing but an armchair general, he, Mattis, came from a different place. As he wrote, “My own 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.”

The Pentagon has been one of the few places in government where morale was holding steady, though barely so. Now it is likely to collapse, with dire repercussions for the young men and women who are risking their lives in the field under the leadership of a confusing and apparently confused commander-in-chief. Mattis will be sorely missed; we must all pray for whomever is named as his successor.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.