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It now has been a week since Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis announced he would leave his post, and a few days since President Donald Trump decided to speed up the timetable of that departure.
It is hard to argue with the conventional wisdom that Mattis is a patriot who has served his country honorably and with distinction. As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he earned four
stars and served in various leadership positions, from the commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command to the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mattis was a rare Trump Cabinet officer to enjoy widespread bipartisan support. He won confirmation in January 2017 by a nearly unanimous vote.
And when Mattis concluded his policy differences with the president were too great to bridge, he did something rare in Washington. Instead of taking the well-worn path of undermining the president in the media – behind the shield of anonymity – he resigned in protest.
Good for him. It’s a European norm that should become more common in the United States.
But if Mattis was honest about the policy differences that he cited in his resignation letter <<< https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/20/politics/james-mattis-resignation-letter-doc/index.html
>>>, it is hard to understand whether he was not paying attention to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or simply did not believe those campaign pronouncements.
Mattis opposed Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, which has been torn apart by civil war. He defended NATO and complained that “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis also cited threats posed by Russia and China.
“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,” he wrote.
Trump’s views on these issues, dating to 2015, were not a secret. He campaigned on the idea of better relations with Russia. He also campaigned against foreign entanglements in the Middle East and as president, he promised that the troops in Syria would be back home “very soon.”
That was in a speech in Ohio earlier this year, although nothing immediately came of it because Syria a short while later launched a chemical weapons attack on anti-regime civilians, prompting U.S. airstrikes.
And, of course, demands that NATO allies meet their defense spending commitments to the alliance have been a frequent staple of Trump’s foreign policy comments.
As noted here <<<< https://www.kirbyonpolitics.com/kirbys-take/syria-announcement-inspires-hypocrisy>>> before, there are many legitimate reasons to conclude Trump made the wrong decision on Syria. The same would go for NATO. But regardless of whether Trump is right or wrong on the policy, one thing his decisions should not be is surprising.
Mattis, himself, seemed to acknowledge that his views would not always find unanimous support within the administration.
“You do not want the tyranny of consensus, of group-think early,” he said during his confirmation hearing. “It has been compared in some cabinets to a team of rivals even, and it is actually healthy. It is not tidy. It will be respectful. Of that, I am certain. And I do not anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win, sir.”
During that hearing, Mattis fielded several questions about Trump’s statements about NATO and Syria. He told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that he had discussed NATO with Trump and that the incoming president was “open even to the point of asking more questions” and that he understood where Mattis stood on the issue.
Perhaps, Mattis thought he could change Trump’s mind.
On Syria, Mattis oversaw a sharp escalation of military operations. As Foreign Policy magazine noted <<< https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/27/james-mattis-wasnt-ready-to-serve-in-a-democracy/
>>>, the U.S. Central Command claimed responsibility for 199 unintended civilian deaths in that country by the time Trump took office. After Trump’s first year, that number skyrocketed to 831.
U.S. troops in the Middle East jumped from 40,517 in mid-2017 to 54,180 by September of that year.
The Pentagon also was less than transparent about the full extent of America’s involvement in Syria. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated in November 2017 that the United States had “about 503” troops in Syria. Foreign Policy notes that the Defense Manpower Data Center the next day placed the actual number at 1,723 in a quarterly report. Two weeks later, the Defense Department reported it was “slightly more than 2,000.”
These realities on the ground are not consistent with Trump’s stated policy objectives in the Middle East.
Nor was Mattis’ view of NATO in keeping with Trump’s policy. So fervently does Mattis believe in the alliance set up during the Cold War that he misstated its nature in his resignation letter.
“NATO's 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America,” he wrote.
Turkey at this point is a democracy in name only under the increasingly authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however.
Freedom House rates Turkey as “Not Free” and two other NATO countries as only “Partly Free.” That includes the newest member, Montenegro. The tiny nation, once part of Yugoslavia, brings a total of 1,950 active duty troops and another 400 in reserve to the alliance. Few Americans likely could identify it on a map.
Yet, with Montenegro’s membership in June 2017, the United States would be obligated to send citizens to fight and die on its behalf should it come under attack.
Mattis wrote that Trump has a “right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
That is as it should be – on defense and every other policy area.
Then voters can decide in 2020 if they want to stay on the current course or switch directions.
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