The Corner

National Security & Defense

Will the Nation Heed the Warning Jim Mattis Delivered Today?

Defense Secretary James Mattis and President Donald Trump before a briefing from senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House, October 23, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Defenders of Trump have long argued that his worst impulses can and will be tempered by the good men and women in his administration. And when they listed the good men and women, the first name on that list was always James Mattis. The legendary warrior. The honorable Marine.

But what does an honorable Marine do when he has an irreconcilable conflict with his commander? No, he does not write anonymous essays for the New York Times. He cannot disobey lawful commands. But he also cannot in good conscience execute plans and policies that he believes are destructive and wrong.

So the honorable man resigns and states the reasons for his resignation. That’s what Mattis did today, and America should heed his words. The full text of his resignation letter is below, and it is nothing short of a rebuke of the president’s habits, philosophy, and decisions:

I want to highlight two excerpts in particular. Both of them send a clear message to the president. Here’s the first:

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. While the US 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. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

It’s opening sentence is key: “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 next says, “[W]e cannot protect our interests . . . without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.” (Emphasis added.)

And which alliances does he choose to emphasize? NATO and the “Defeat-ISIS coalition.” The language is polite, but the meaning is unmistakable. Our alliances make us stronger. Our allies fight with us. They deserve our respect. And, critically, they need our leadership. He makes this statement one day after the president abdicated leadership in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

In the very next paragraph, Mattis calls for Trump to be “resolute and unambiguous” in his dealings with Russia and China. Then, he says this:

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Again he refers to treating allies with respect. Again he urges clarity in dealing with “malign actors.” The lead sentence of the following paragraph is devastating: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other matters, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” (Emphasis added.)

Donald Trump is at a pivotal moment. He can heed General Mattis’s warning — delivered publicly, firmly, and respectfully — or he can continue down his current, reckless path. This letter represents America’s most-respected warrior telling the nation that he does not believe the president sees our enemies clearly, understands the importance of our alliances, or perceives the necessity of American leadership. We should be deeply troubled.

But this isn’t just a pivotal moment for Trump. Republicans in Congress believed that General Mattis’s appointment was one of Trump’s best decisions as president, and Mattis’s very presence at the Pentagon reassured the party and (more importantly) the public that an inexperienced, impulsive, president would listen to wise counsel. After reading this letter, will Republicans in Congress retain their faith in Trump’s judgment? Will they continue to view him as the leader of the GOP, the man they defer to in politics and policy?

Now is the time for Republicans in Congress to declare their independence from the Republican in the White House and refuse once and for all to rubber-stamp Donald Trump’s whims and desires.

General Mattis has performed a profoundly important public service. He has served his country in combat. He has served in country in high public office. He has now served it well with his resignation. Will the nation heed the warning he delivered today?

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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