The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

James Mattis Can’t Work for Trump Anymore

Secretary of Defense James Mattis attends a news conference at the Defence Ministry in Paris, France, October 2, 2018. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: It’s all pretty grim today. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns, the pullout from Syria appears likely to happen, and the government shutdown starts soon. Hey, Merry Christmas, everybody!

The Resignation of James Mattis Is the Scariest Moment of Trump’s Presidency

This is bad. Really, really bad.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was arguably the best and most important cabinet decision that President Trump made. Indisputably qualified and brimming with experience, he personified what the Trump administration presumably wanted to be: tough, smart, thoroughly reassuring, and sometimes intimidating. As a man who had seen war up close many times, Mattis sought to avoid it. If it couldn’t be avoided, Mattis was ready to fight it and win it.

Foreign-allied leaders who were freaked out by Trump came away comforted and encouraged by Mattis. Military leaders often have to work with their foreign counterparts on joint exercises, coalition operations, on foreign bases, or as military attachés, and our uniformed officers often end up becoming adept diplomats, used to working out differences, figuring out common ground, soothing egos and making reassuring gestures of respect. No matter what Trump said or did, Mattis and the other experienced folks around him reassured the world that the president’s furious passions could be channeled into constructive directions: bombing ISIS into oblivion. Sending retaliatory airstrikes at Bashar al-Assad when he used chemical weapons. Taking a tough line on Iran. Standing with the Japanese against Chinese expansion and South Korea against North Korean threats, and protecting the sea lanes.

Mattis was also clearly not a sycophant or yes-man. He could be counted on to tell it exactly as he saw it, whether the president wanted to hear it or not. Whether or not any president likes hearing these sorts of assessments, every president needs to hear them.

The funny thing is that the man once known as “Saint Mattis of Quantico, Patron Saint of Chaos” could become such a assuring figure of order and stability.

And now he’s quit, concluding that he can no longer work for this president.

Yesterday while defending the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Trump tweeted, “Time for others to finally fight…..” which is a stunning insult to the Kurds, the Iraqi army, and Syrian Defense Forces, who did most of the fighting on the ground against ISIS.

Mattis’s letter does not pull any punches.

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…

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. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

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.

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.

The fact that Mattis is laying this out so openly — I believe our alliances are valuable and that Russia and China are threats, and the president does not agree with me — should frighten us, as should the fact that Mattis found their differences irreconcilable and worth resigning over.

How Syria Is a Textbook Example of Eliminating Threats with Minimal Casualties

Like the dog that didn’t bark in the old Sherlock Holmes story, there’s something strange about public response to our military efforts in Syria, and President Trump’s call to remove all U.S. personnel from that country: Where’s the old anti-war movement? Remember when we had anti-war protesters regularly? Code Pink?

Polling revealed that most anti-war protesters lost interest right around Obama’s election — indicating that it was never that much of an anti-war movement and always more of an anti-Bush movement. A lot of people chanting in the streets during the Bush years were perfectly fine with vastly expanded drone strikes, a presidential “kill list,” and airstrikes or military raids in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. As long as a Democratic president was ordering it all, they were fine with it.

But today, even with another Republican in the Oval Office, there is no vocal movement to get U.S. troops out of Syria — or anywhere else, really. I know those crowds back in the 2000s looked old, but they couldn’t have all died off, could have they?

You know how many U.S. servicemen have lost their lives in Syria?


That’s not Vietnam. That’s not Iraq. That’s not even Panama. The Pentagon never likes to say exactly how many U.S. armed forces are in a country, but as of last December, we had 2,000.

The operations killed between 8,000 and 9,000 ISIS members, as of an estimate last month by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

The intervention in Syria is pretty much a textbook example of how to influence events on the ground in once-hostile territory without severe casualties. As mentioned above, the vast majority of the ground fighting against ISIS was handled by the Syrian Defense Forces, the Kurds, and the Iraqi army. We provided the airstrikes, the intelligence, some training, and occasional work alongside other allied groups on key missions. If you want to get a sense of how the forces work together, you can watch helmet-cam footage of a Kurdish Peshmerga special forces working with U.S. Delta Force Hawija Operation Iraq in October 2015. The mission freed 70 prisoners from an ISIS-held compound during a nighttime raid. During that operation, Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed, the first U.S. military casualty against ISIS. From what can be seen on the video, the operation is well-planned, methodical, and quick.

Could we reduce the number of U.S. troops in Syria? Sure, if the conditions warranted it and the people running the operation and folks on the ground thought it was a good idea. If this is the right move, make the case for it, beyond tired lines about “being the world’s policeman.” If the Kurds and Free Syrian Army don’t need us as much as they used to, show us. Consult allies. If the generals and national security council and intelligence community all said a gradual, measured withdrawal was a good idea, then it wouldn’t be shocking or troubling.

The editors conclude that Trump’s decision is . . . Obama-esque.

Trump is reportedly disregarding the counsel of his own national-security team. They have allegedly talked him out of previous retreats, articulating many of the reasons outlined above, but today’s announcement is proof that, for all the supposed consolation that an inexperienced president has surrounded himself with capable national-security advisers, his decision is the one that matters.

One would think that a GOP administration would have learned the lessons of Obama’s reckless withdrawal from Iraq. American retreats often create power vacuums that are often filled by American enemies. Now, after all the blood spilled and tears shed since the rise of ISIS, Donald Trump is set to make his own version of Obama’s deadly mistake.

Here Comes the Third Government Shutdown of 2018.

I suppose Trump deserves credit for not surrendering on the wall in his last spending bill until the Democrats take over the House — or at least not yet. But now he’s in a showdown with limited leverage. He seems to be following a variation of the strategy from those gnomes from South Park:

  1. Veto any spending bill that doesn’t fund the wall and shut down the government.
  2. ???
  3. Democrats surrender and agree to fund the wall.

Democrats might surrender if they feared they were being blamed for the shutdown. But that’s a much harder public argument to win, now that the president has declared, on national television in the Oval Office:

I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.

This morning, Trump is warning, “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time.” If this occurs, it would be the third government shutdown of the year. Why would the Democrats be afraid of this? In fact, some might argue that now they have to vote “no,” to prove that they can’t be bullied by this president.

I guess the plan is to have a long shutdown, put the squeeze on as many federal workers as possible, and hope that the federal workers pressure Democrats to throw Trump a bone and approve a few billion in funding for the wall. But if you’re a Democratic lawmaker, the consequences of the government shutdown have to get really bad before they get worse than the consequences of surrendering to the president on funding for the border wall.

Trump’s alterative backup plan is to argue that Mitch McConnell should nuke the filibuster and pass the wall funding with 50 votes. But this isn’t a decision that the Senate majority leader makes alone. He needs 50 votes to do this, and he doesn’t have those votes. He’s got about half, according to Ted Cruz earlier this year.

Separately, Democrats are about to take over the House. No more conservative or mostly GOP-supported legislation is going to becoming over to the Senate starting in January, so the filibuster is about to become irrelevant. And if they nuke it now, and Democrats win 50 seats in November 2020 . . . the GOP will have no way to stop the entire Democratic agenda from becoming law.

But I suppose this argument gives the president the next best thing, which is a scapegoat.

ADDENDUM: Starting today: the Three Martini Lunch podcast End-of-the-Year Awards, inspired by the old McLaughlin Group episodes. Over the next six weekdays, Greg and I will select the most underrated, most overrated, and most honest political figures; the political figure we’re sorry to see go, the rising star, and the figure fading into oblivion; the best scandal, the best political theater, and the worst political theater; the best political idea, the worst political idea, and the boldest political tactic; the most underreported story, the most over-reported story, and the best story; and finally, the person of the Year, the turncoat of the year,  and our big prediction for 2019.

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