The near-destruction of ISIS in a matter of months (losing 99 percent of its landed caliphate), the restoration of sound defense budgeting, a reestablished sense of deterrence, and stable recalibration with allies were the signature achievements of James Mattis. And it seems a mistake not to have him finish a four-year stint at Defense.
No doubt continued U.S. deployments in both Afghanistan and Syria loomed large in Trump’s sudden decision to leave the latter even if it would cause Mattis’s departure, as well as the sense that as 2020 looms he wants MAGA orthodoxy throughout the cabinet.
The abrupt pulling of U.S. troops out of Syria is likely a mistake — given that for the size (about 2,000 troops on the ground) and cost of the deployment (few casualties), we were keeping ISIS moribund, somewhat checking Iran as well as Russia, and protecting the Kurds and what was left of the democratic Syria resistance. True, Syria was a mess, unlike a relatively stable Iraq in late 2011 (see the comments of Vice President Biden and President Obama), when the U.S. likewise abruptly left and opened the door for ISIS. Yet Syria’s future now is either going to be much more of a mess or soon a calmer colony of Russia and Iran.
No doubt the U.S. will likewise be reexamining the soon to be 18-year-long slog in Afghanistan.
The problem with all these deployments as they transitioned from emergency interventions to near-permanent stationing was that grand strategists never clearly articulated to the public how such investments kept the U.S. far safer and how long such basing would be necessary, especially in terms of costs to benefits. Both arguments in theory could be made (cf. South Korea), but the public at least never was assured by a series of Afghan deadlines, surges, redirects, recalibrations, withdrawals, and radical changes in command, tactics, and strategies, or by a Syrian tragedy of false red lines, lies about the elimination of poison gas, invitations to the Russians to adjudicate U.N.-enforced WMD compliance and with it entrance back into the Middle East after a 40-year hiatus, ISIS as “jayvees,” the role of NATO “ally” Turkey, and prior restrictive lawfare tactics, etc. Ditto the Clinton “We came, we saw, he [Khadafi] died” misadventure in Libya, ending in Benghazi.
The irony is that under Mattis, we were finally getting to a smaller but deadlier footprint abroad and, at least in Syria, fulfilling Trump’s “Bomb the sh** out of ISIS” promise in the sense of more rubble/less trouble realism. Trump’s base is neither pro-isolationist nor pro–nation-building interventionism, which leaves something in the middle like “Don’t tread on me” Jacksonian realism that his generals seemed to be enacting.
With the Mattis departure ends the Kelly/Mattis/McMaster troika of generals, who in retrospect served the administration — and the country — honorably and effectively in difficult times.