James Mattis resigned as defense secretary on Thursday, delivering an unsparing two-page resignation letter to President Donald Trump that served as a searing indictment of the president’s foreign policy.
Mattis made clear the two had fundamental differences in how they view the world, and America’s place in it, and that the retired four-star general could no longer overcome those disagreements.
“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.
Mattis was specific on where he clashed with Trump. He said he believes America’s strength is “inextricably linked” to the alliances and partnerships the US has around the world, especially NATO, and that “showing respect” to those allies is critical to protecting US interests. He also highlighted the importance countering the authoritarian impulses of China and Russia, and of using American power to defend against their rise and protect US allies.
This is the exact opposite of the “America First” foreign policy Trump espouses. Trump sees American’s relationships with other countries as transactional — the US should only do something for another country if we get something out of it in return. Trump has publicly trashed America’s partnerships and multilateral institutions, often accusing allies of taking advantage of the US. And he is enamored of strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mattis battled the president throughout his tenure over these issues and was long seen as a check on Trump’s worst foreign policy and national security impulses.
But this decisive break, coming just a day after Trump overruled Mattis and other senior advisers on the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, puts Mattis’s critique of Trump in sharp relief. It also raises the question of what comes next, if Trump — already skeptical of Mattis’s worldview — no longer has his counsel at all.
Mattis said he holds America’s alliances as a “core belief.” Trump believes in “America First.”
The principles Mattis defends in his resignation letter reflect real, critical policy disputes within the Trump administration — ones that have altered and, in some cases, started to redefine America’s global role.
Mattis begins by stating that he holds as a “core belief” that America’s “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,” Mattis continued, “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis’s mention of “respect” is a particularly biting statement. Trump has traded barbs with some of America’s closest allies, creating tension that is both needless and counterproductive.
He has picked public fights with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over NAFTA; with French President Emmanuel Macron over the Paris climate accords and domestic unrest in that country; with British Prime Minister Theresa May over her Brexit plan; and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over Germany’s NATO military spending and dependence on Russian oil and gas.
More broadly, he talks about America’s relationships with allies in purely transactional terms — a kind of “what have you done for me lately” attitude that’s often divorced from the principles and history behind these relationships. He accuses partners of undercutting the US on trade or bilking the US for protection.
This is particularly true of NATO, which Mattis mentions specifically in his letter. He notes that all 29 countries in the alliance at the time came to America’s defense after the 9/11 attacks — the only time in history that the organization has invoked Article 5, the part of the NATO treaty that holds that an attack on one country is an attack on all the allied countries.
But instead of expressing gratitude to the allied countries for standing up and fighting for America when it was attacked, Trump has openly questioned the purpose of NATO in the post-Cold War era and regularly complained that the alliance benefits Europe at America’s expense.
“NATO is really there for Europe much more so than us,” Trump said at a press conference in the UK in July. “No matter what our military people or your military people say, it helps Europe more than it helps us.”
This is the exact opposite of what Mattis believes, and a direct contradiction of the world order he seeks to preserve. Vox’s Alex Ward sums it up clearly: “Trump wants to disrupt world affairs while Mattis wants to maintain the status quo.”
Mattis basically accuses Trump of empowering the Kremlin (and China)
Mattis strongly implies that Trump’s chipping away at America’s alliances has been a boon to foes like Russia and China.
“I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” Mattis writes. “It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.”
Trump’s open admiration of and cozy relationships with some of the world’s most ruthless authoritarian leaders — from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — has been a common theme in his presidency.
Trump believes “getting along” with Putin and others is a good thing. But while personal rapport can certainly be an asset in international diplomacy, getting along for the sake of getting along doesn’t necessarily advance America’s strategic interests. And Trump, in failing to stand up for US allies or reneging on international commitments, has created opportunities for competitors such as Russia and China to take advantage of America’s retreat.
Trump’s deference toward Putin in particular has always caused consternation, perhaps never more so than when he sided with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, over his own intelligence agencies on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Beyond visible displays of chumminess, Trump has aided Putin’s agenda with his attacks on NATO and the European Union. Putin’s long-stated goal is to weaken and divide NATO — which was explicitly created during the Cold War to be a powerful check on Russian aggression and expansion.
Though Trump has increased the number of US troops in Eastern Europe and spent more on Europe’s defense, diminished US leadership in the alliance and a growing concern among NATO members that America might not actually come to their defense should Russia invade gives Putin exactly what he wants.
China, too, has benefited from Trump’s “America First” foreign policy in many ways that may not be readily apparent to those who see headlines about the US trade war with China. Trump is at loggerheads with Beijing over trade and has tried to put pressure on China, to be sure. But China’s rise and influence has to do with a lot more than just its trade surplus with the United States.
And the US has ceded a lot of ground to China on the global stage under the Trump administration — by pulling out of the Paris climate deal, for instance, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was intended to be an economic and strategic counterweight to Beijing.
China has, in turn, tried to paint itself as a global leader in the space the US has vacated.
Syria seems to have been the breaking point for Mattis
Yet Mattis remained by Trump’s side through all of these policy decisions — through his attacks on NATO, his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, his decision to pull out of the Paris deal, and more.
So why now, all of a sudden, is he expressing dismay over all of these actions? The answer, it seems, has to do with Trump’s abrupt decision this week to pull all US troops out of Syria — something the defense secretary has long advised Trump against doing.
In his resignation letter, Mattis explicitly mentions the “Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations” as another example of the power and importance of alliances in keeping America safe. By all accounts, America’s coalition partners in the fight against ISIS in Syria were completely blindsided by Trump’s decision (as was most of Trump’s administration).
Mattis appears to be rebuking Trump for abandoning allies without consultation or planning. The Associated Press reports that Trump hastily made the decision in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, against the wishes of his advisers, and then tweeted about the decision before he’d bothered to inform any of the other countries and groups that have been fighting alongside the US in Syria for years.
In Mattis’s view, it takes American leadership and commitment to rally 74 countries and other partners to defeat a terror group like ISIS. Even though Trump has claimed ISIS is “defeated,” it is not — and even if it was, a threat like it will emerge in the future. The US, proving itself unreliable and unpredictable, will struggle to rally that kind of coalition in the future.
What’s more, Trump’s decision to leave Syria has also left Iran, Syria, and Russia to operate freely in the region, in direct contradiction of stated US national security interests.
But perhaps most egregious was that Trump failed to give any warning to America’s Kurdish allies, who have been instrumental in pushing back ISIS on the ground in Syria. By pulling out US troops, Trump is leaving them at the mercy of Erdoğan, who is preparing to launch an offensive against them.
That decision to basically throw the Kurds under the bus without even having the decency to give them a heads-up seems to have been what finally pushed Mattis over the edge.
According to multiple reports, Mattis wrote up his letter of resignation before making one last desperate attempt on Thursday to try to talk Trump into reversing his decision on Syria, resulting in a tense exchange in the Oval Office. When it became clear the president wasn’t going to budge on his decision, Mattis tendered his resignation on the spot.
Trump received Mattis’s scathing letter a short time later, “and noted to aides that it was not positive toward him,” the Washington Post reported.
Mattis wasn’t always successful in persuading Trump. But are the guardrails completely off now?
Mattis’s critique of Trump revealed the ways the two men disagreed — but it also revealed the limits of Mattis’s influence in the Trump administration.
Mattis has had some successes persuading Trump to see things his way, or at least keeping his worse impulses in check. As Vox’s Alex Ward explains:
For instance, Mattis reportedly stopped Trump from ordering the assassination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in April 2017, a move that would have escalated Syria’s brutal civil war and brought the US much deeper into the conflict. He also pushed Trump to stick to a diplomacy-first approach to North Korea rather than defaulting immediately to military options. And according to Trump himself, Mattis convinced him that torture is a bad idea.
But Mattis failed in major areas too — perhaps most significantly on convincing Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal — and he was left out of some of Trump’s major decisions on the military, including the ban on transgender troops serving openly.
Mattis’s legacy is somewhat mixed, but his departure feels like a pivotal moment in the Trump administration. Democrats and Republicans voiced strong concerns at the news of Mattis’s departure. Hawks in Trump’s administration such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely have wider latitude in the administration, and even if Mattis wasn’t always successful in advocating for his principles, he was at least around to make the case.
Trump has not yet picked a replacement for Mattis, who said he will officially step down in February. Whoever it is may or may not share Mattis’s worldview. But it might not matter. Mattis’s vision for America, in the end, lost out to Trump’s.