National Security & Defense

When It Comes to Trump, Mattis Is No Hero

President Donald Trump (left) is introduced by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis during the commissioning ceremony of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., July 22, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
In this country, the efficacy and morality of a president’s foreign-policy goals are debated in the public arena and decided on Election Day. We are not ruled by generals.

There is an extraordinarily self-serving chapter in Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, which relays a conversation between then-former Defense Secretary James Mattis and then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in which the two contemplate taking “collective action” against the president of United States.

Here’s the snippet:

“I haven’t spoken out,” Mattis commiserated. He had maintained his silence since his resignation in December. “I’ve made my case before the president. He listened. In the end he just didn’t agree with me.” Trump’s disdain for the allies and decision to pull out of Syria with no warning, no consultation, had been Mattis’s red line. “I’ve buried too many boys. That was a terrible decision.”

“This is not good,” Mattis said. “Maybe at some point we’re going to have to stand up and speak out. There may be a time when we have to take collective action.”

“Well, possibly,” Coats said. “Yeah, there may.”

“He’s dangerous,” Mattis said. “He’s unfit.”

Though Woodward attempts to portray Mattis as the noble protagonist of the Trump era — oh, look, there’s the general sneaking into the National Cathedral, a busy tourist attraction, to pray for the soul of the nation — the attempt backfires. Clandestine conversations about collectively preventing the president from engaging in his preferred — and completely legal — foreign-policy goals are probably exhilarating to readers of resistance porn. But, in this country, the efficacy and morality of those foreign-policy goals are debated in the public arena and decided on Election Day. We are not ruled by generals in America.

It is unclear exactly what Mattis was referring to with his talk of “collective action” against the president. But it certainly wasn’t a mere airing of grievances. Coats himself confirms this when he tells Mattis that “speaking out didn’t seem to work.”

Mattis could have spoken out. In December 2018 he resigned after disagreeing with Trump on the question of withdrawal from Syria — a move that the president had promised to make numerous times during the 2016 campaign. It wasn’t until June of 2020 that Mattis told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that he had come to the realization that Trump was a threat to the Constitution just that weekend. But, given that the scene in Woodward’s book occurred in 2019, that can’t be true. Or, Woodward’s account can’t be true. Or both. Either way, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Mattis’s core problem with Trump is over policy. In Woodward’s book, Mattis complains that Trump made “a terrible decision,” that he “didn’t agree with me,” and he crossed what Woodward describes as his “red line.”

That Trump’s political choices aren’t favored by Washington’s entrenched foreign-policy elites — people who have been wrong so often that they make the Congressional Budget Office look like Nostradamus — is unsurprising. But it’s worth noting that Mattis’s record here is hardly spotless. Mattis alleges that he no longer could stomach Trump’s “disdain” for the allies. On Tuesday, Trump held a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Arab countries that have normalized agreements with the Jewish State. This alone is a bigger foreign-policy victory than anything accomplished by Obama — who had great “disdain” for long-standing allies such as Israel.

Perhaps the retired Marine Corps general, who’d “buried too many boys,” was genuinely concerned that Trump would escalate violence. Nevertheless, there’s a strong argument to be made that more “boys” would have been buried if Trump — the first president who hasn’t gotten us into a new conflict since Jimmy Carter — had taken Mattis’s advice on Syria. (Trump now claims Mattis also dissuaded him from assassinating Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.)

It’s only fair to point out that Mattis alienated himself from the Obama administration, too, by taking an aggressive stance on Iran after the Islamic regime murdered hundreds of American soldiers, and that, in those days, Mattis wasn’t portrayed as an “esteemed” military man of indisputable integrity, but rather as a saber-rattler who was undercutting Obama’s alleged peacemaking efforts.

Again, it is difficult to avoid the conclusions that the core problem for Mattis, and many others who are entrenched in the Washington, D.C., foreign-policy establishment, was that President Trump doesn’t want troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. But, as was the case under Obama, that’s simply not for them to decide.

Do they know this? Over the past four years we have watched as factions within the Justice Department and the Pentagon have unilaterally decided that the American people made a horrible mistake in 2016 — a mistake that must be nullified. It is true that Trump’s volatility and habit of naming officials who are antagonistic to his goals doesn’t help his cause. It is also true that at no time in modern history has the bureaucratic machinery of the executive branch worked so openly to undermine the legal policy goals of the president.

Neither the Justice Department nor the “generals” are independent branches of government. The military answers to the civil power, not to officials such as Mattis. If Mattis believed that Trump was a threat, he should have gone to the media immediately and made a consistent case to the American people. Instead, if Woodward is to be believed, he met with high-ranking government officials and flirted with the idea of undermining the duly elected president. Then, he went to a prodigious author who framed his behavior during the Trump years as an act of heroism.

It was not.


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