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Why the Resignation of James Mattis Is Especially Concerning

The departure of the retired general in Trump’s White House is yielding fear on both sides of the aisle

US Defense Secretary James Mattis listens to President Donald J. Trump (not pictured) speak to the media before meeting with senior military advisors in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 23 October 2018. Trump used the opportunity to speak on the Saudi cover up of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the migrant caravan heading to the US.Trump speaks with senior military leaders in Cabinet Room at White House, Washington, USA - 23 Oct 2018

Defense Secretary James Mattis listening to President Donald J. Trump (not pictured) on October 23, 2018

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Defense Secretary James Mattis will leave the Trump administration at the end of February. It’s hard to believe he made it this long. The retired four-star general was reported to have disagreed with several of the president’s foreign policy decisions, none more so, apparently, than Wednesday’s surprise move to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Mattis and just about everyone outside of Laura Ingraham urged Trump to rethink the decision, to no avail. He didn’t hide his feelings in his resignation letter. “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,” he wrote. “While the U.S. 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.”

According to the New York Times, Mattis wrote the letter before going to the White House on Thursday to try to convince the president to reconsider the withdrawal. The defense secretary was reportedly “livid” at what he viewed as a betrayal of the Kurds, who had allied with the United States and now will be left to fend for themselves against Syrian President Bashar al Assad, what remains of ISIS and Turkey, which has said it will attack the Kurds if the U.S. were to withdraw from the region. After Trump refused to walk back the decision, Mattis had copies of the letter distributed throughout the Pentagon.

In the letter, Mattis went to outline his philosophy toward international relations, namely that the United States must work with allies to prevent countries that promote an “authoritarian model” from gaining influence, specifically citing Russia and China. “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 wrote. As former CIA director John Brennan pointed out Thursday night on MSNBC, at no point in the letter did Mattis offer gratitude toward or praise of President Trump.

“General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years,” tweeted Trump. “During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment. General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”

Mattis is the third high-profile official to bow out of the administration since the midterms. Earlier this month, the president tweeted that his chief of staff, John Kelly, would be leaving at the end of the year. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions tendered his resignation, handing over the keys to the Justice Department to his chief of staff, Andrew Whitaker, who will keep the post warm until a permanent attorney general is confirmed. A month after forcing out Sessions, Trump nominated former George H.W. Bush attorney general William Barr to fill the role. Both Whitaker and Barr have publicly criticized the Mueller investigation.

Unlike most administration departures, of which there have now been dozens, Mattis left on his own accord and because he just couldn’t take it anymore. This is especially troubling, as Mattis was seen as one of Trump’s more sensible, level-headed appointments. He was respected among Republicans and within the Pentagon, and widely regarded as a critical check on the president’s misguided impulses regarding the military. Now that he’s leaving, the future of the administration’s relationship with NATO, and with authoritarian powers like Russia and China, has been thrown into doubt, if it wasn’t there already. “Mattis departure deeply worrisome. Very challenging days ahead for the Pentagon and the nation,” wrote James Stavridis, who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2009-2013.

The rest of the military community seemed to feel similarly. “This is a different kind of resignation from a Cabinet position than any of the other ones that have resigned or been fired,” Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling said Thursday night on CNN. “Secretary Mattis grew up in a military culture where we talk about resignation. It’s discussed in our war colleges, in our staff colleges. When do you get to the point where you can’t either do what your boss wants because it’s illegal, unethical or immoral, or you just have major disagreements with it, and then you weigh the balance between continuing to contribute to the organization, or saying I’m gone. When a guy like Mattis says I’m gone, there’s something dysfunctional.”

Alarm bells were sounding among Senate Republicans, as well, many of which vehemently opposed the move to withdraw troops from Syria. “Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who on Wednesday signed a bipartisan letter urging the president to reconsider withdrawing troops. “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries. I hope we who have supported this administrations initiatives over the last two years can persuade the President to choose a different direction. But we must also fulfill our constitutional duty to conduct oversight over the policies of the executive branch.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) wrote: “General Mattis was giving advice POTUS needs to hear. Mattis rightly believes that Russia & China are adversaries, and that we are at war with jihadists across the globe who plot to kill Americans. Isolationism is a weak strategy that will harm Americans that will harm America and America’s allies. Radical jihadists are still at war with us, and NO, MR PRESIDENT, ISIS is not gone. It’s not true — and just proclaiming it doesn’t make it so.”

A few hours after Mattis resigned, it was reported that the Trump administration also ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan. According to the Times, Afghan officials who are typically in communication with the U.S. were not notified of the decision.

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