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National security after Mattis should alarm Americans of all political parties

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The historic resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis was not just another pre-Christmas crisis in the perpetual pandemonium of the Donald Trump presidency. The Mattis resignation removes the last senior official in the administration who will defend the critical international relationships and alliances that have insured U.S. national security since 1945.

In coming days, Trump will do what he always does when snared in a problem — divert attention and bury the facts until the national media focus moves on. But national security policy is too important to ignore without serious consideration of the consequences.

The Mattis letter of resignation describes a deep divide between the president and the Secretary of Defense on fundamental national security policy. The letter is an articulate rebuke of the president’s unilateralist approach to national security and a warning to the nation about the damage to America’s international leadership and to the nation’s future security caused by the policies of the Trump administration.

The Mattis letter makes two primary points about U.S. national security. 

The first is a fundamental statement of support for U.S. relationships with critical allies and security alliances now under attack by the current president. {mosads}

Mattis recognizes that for decades the U.S. has functioned best in confronting international security challenges when it upheld its national values and acted within a coalition of strong and committed democratic nations. The U.S. has other important, even vital, relationships in the world, but none are as critical to the nation’s security as the bond with the democracies in Europe and elsewhere that share American democratic values. In that regard, the strongest security coalition for the U.S. is with Canada and the major European democracies committed to NATO. 

The second major point in the Mattis letter is a clear definition of friends and adversaries.

As Mattis point out, there should be no confusion today about who are America’s friends and who are the nation’s adversaries. Russia, China and other authoritarian governments opposed to democracy around the world are the primary security threats to the United States. This is a direct rebuttal of the Trump administration’s failure to confront Russian attacks on U.S. elections and democracy in Europe and elsewhere.

As shocking as it is, the departure of Mattis from the Pentagon was almost inevitable. Once neoconservative hawk John Bolton became National Security Advisor and Tea Party unilateralist Mike Pompeo became Secretary of State, Mattis was the odd-man out on national security at the top of the administration. 

With Mattis now a lame duck secretary, U.S. national security policy is in the hands of an erratic and unstable president, assisted by John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and an assortment of wacky enablers like Stephen Miller.

Neocons like Bolton consider traditional U.S. allies, not as partners, but as subordinates. They view democratic nations in Europe with contempt and demean and belittle NATO and other international institutions. Meanwhile, they offer no hint of any rational alternative national security strategy.   

The unilateralists are good at stirring passions through tough-talk nationalism and phony patriotism, but they are not good at math. What Mattis and other serious national security professionals know is that the United States does not have the military capacity to act alone in most cases. In 1945, the U.S. had 12 million personnel in uniform; in Korea and Vietnam, the number was about 3.5 million. Today, the U.S. military has 1.3 million in active service. The all-volunteer military is highly capable but too small to meet the potential demands on national security alone.

The Trump administration is lucky that its dysfunctional national security apparatus has not encountered a real crisis. So far, its national security policy has primarily damaged critical relationships with allies, diminished the confidence in NATO, and weakened American influence broadly in the world. But luck and hope are never effective policy. 

Secretary Mattis, in his resignation, has warned the nation that the Trump presidency is on a path that threatens American national security. This message should not get lost in an atmosphere of constant national turbulence today. Rather, it should alarm Americans of all political parties.

James W. Pardew is a former US ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump James Mattis Jim Mattis John R. Bolton Mike Pompeo Mike Pompeo National security Presidency of Donald Trump

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