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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns after clashes with Trump on troops withdrawal from Syria

Marine Corps four-star General James Mattis.

Marine Corps four-star General James Mattis.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Gen. Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February after two tumultuous years.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned on Thursday, December 21, 2018, after clashes with President Donald Trump over the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and after two years of deep disagreements over America’s role in the world.

Gen. Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February after two tumultuous years struggling to soften and moderate the President’s hardline and sometimes sharply changing policies. He told Mr. Trump in a letter that he was leaving because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

“Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter ,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

Gen. Mattis did not mention the dispute over Syria in his letter or proposed deep cuts to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, another significant policy dispute. He noted his “core belief” that American strength is “inextricably linked” with the nation’s alliances with other countries, a position seemingly at odds with the “America First” policy of the President.

The Defense Secretary also said China and Russia want to spread their “authoritarian model” and promote their interests at the expense of America and its allies. “That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense,” he wrote.

The announcement came a day after Mr. Trump surprised U.S. allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, and as he continues to consider cutting in half the American deployment in Afghanistan by this summer. The news coincided with domestic turmoil as well, Mr. Trump’s fight with Congress over a border wall and a looming partial government shutdown.

Mr. Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria has been sharply criticised for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who may well face a Turkish assault once U.S. troops leave, and had been staunchly opposed by the Pentagon.

Gen. Mattis, in his resignation letter, emphasized the importance of standing up for U.S. allies an implicit criticism of the President’s decision on this issue and others.

“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,” Gen. Mattis wrote.

Last year, Republican Sen. Bob Corker a frequent Trump critic said Gen. Mattis, along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were helping “separate our country from chaos.”

Mr. Tillerson was fired early this year. Mr. Kelly is to leave the White House in the coming days.

“This is scary,” reacted Senate Intelligence committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., on Twitter. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”

“Jim Mattis did a superb job as Secretary of Defense. But he cannot be expected to stand behind a President who disrespects our allies and ingratiates himself to our adversaries,” said William Cohen, who served as Defense Secretary under Bill Clinton and knows Mattis well.

Gen. Mattis’ departure has long been rumoured, but officials close to him have insisted that the battle-hardened retired Marine would hang on, determined to bring military calm and judgment to the administration’s often chaotic national security decisions and to soften some of Mr. Trump’s sharper tones with allies.

Opponents of Gen. Mattis, however, have seen him as an unwanted check on Mr. Trump.

Gen. Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon to resign after failing to persuade the President in a tense Oval Office meeting to change his decision on withdrawing troops from Syria, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation but not authorised to discuss it publicly.

Another U.S. official said that Gen. Mattis’ decision was his own, and not a “forced resignation.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Mr. Trump said a replacement would be chosen soon. “The President’s national security team’s job is to give him advice and it’s the President’s job to make a decision,” said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

At the start of the Trump administration, the President had gushed about his respect for Ge. Mattis, repeatedly calling him “Mad Dog,” despite Gen. Mattis’ own public insistence that the moniker was never his. Instead, his nickname for years was CHAOS, which stood for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Suggestion,” and reflected Gen. Mattis’ more cerebral nature.

The two quickly clashed on major policy decisions.

During his first conversations with Mr. Trump about the Pentagon job, Gen. Mattis made it clear that he disagreed with his new boss in two areas — he said torture doesn’t work, despite Mr. Trump’s assertion during the campaign that it did, and he voiced staunch support for traditional U.S. international alliances, including NATO, which Mr. Trump repeatedly criticised.

Gen. Mattis was credited by some in the administration for blocking an executive order that would have reopened CIA interrogation “black sites.” Mr. Trump has said the Pentagon chief convinced him it wasn’t necessary to bring back banned torture techniques like waterboarding.

En route to his first visit to Iraq as Defense Secretary, Gen. Mattis bluntly rebuffed Mr. Trump’s assertion that America might take Iraqi oil as compensation for U.S. efforts in the war-torn country.

The two also were divided on the future of the Afghanistan war, with Mr. Trump complaining from the first about its cost and arguing for withdrawal. Gen. Mattis and others ultimately persuaded Trump to pour additional resources and troops into the conflict to press toward a resolution.

U.S. officials say there now is active planning in the Pentagon that would pull as many as half the 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by summer. They say no final decision has been made.

Mr. Trump also chafed at the Pentagon’s slow response to his order to ban transgender people from serving in the military. That effort has stalled due to multiple legal challenges.

More recently, Mr. Trump bypassed Gen. Mattis’ choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief, was Gen. Mattis’ top choice, but Mr. Trump chose Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of the Army

The Pentagon has appeared to be caught off guard by a number of Trump policy declarations, often made through Twitter. Those include plans that ultimately fizzled to have a big military parade this month and the more recent decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the Southwest border.

Gen. Mattis has determinedly kept a low public profile, striving to stay out of the news and out of Mr. Trump’s line of fire.

Those close to him have repeatedly insisted that he would not quit, and would have to either be fired or die in the job. But others have noted that a two-year stint as defense chief is a normal and respectable length of service.

Born in Pullman, Washington, Gen. Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, later earning a history degree from Central Washington University. He was commissioned as an officer in 1972. As a Lieutenant Colonel, he led an assault battalion into Kuwait during the first U.S. war with Iraq in 1991.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Gen. Mattis commanded the Marines who launched an early amphibious assault into Afghanistan and established a U.S. foothold in the Taliban heartland. As the first wave of Marines moved toward Kandahar, Gen. Mattis declared, “The Marines have landed, and now we own a piece of Afghanistan.”

Two years later, he helped lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003 as the two-star commander of the 1st Marine Division. As a four-star, he led Central Command from 2010 until his retirement in 2013.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 5:46:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/mattis-resigning-as-pentagon-chief-after-clashes-with-trump/article25795743.ece

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