I swear I keep trying to stop blogging, but every time I think I’m out, Donald Trump pulls me back in.
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 end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019, a date that should allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed as well as to make sure the Department’s interests are properly articulated and protected at upcoming events to include Congressional posture hearings and the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in February. Further, that a full transition to a new Secretary of Defense occurs well in advance of the transition of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September in order to ensure stability Within the Department.
Translated into English, Mattis doesn’t think Trump knows who his friends are and believes he’s stabbing his allies (presumably the YPG) in the back. There’s not a single sentiment in the entire letter that could be described as showing gratitude toward Trump. Honestly it’s a pretty remarkable letter.
To be fair, in addition to Syria Mattis is also probably referring to this:
The Trump administration is withdrawing roughly 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months, two defense officials said Thursday, around half of what the American military has there now.
Mr. Trump made the decision at the same time he decided he was pulling American forces out of Syria, one official said. The move is likely one of the first steps to end the United States’ involvement in the 17-year-old war.
(If you’re looking for snap thoughts about Afghanistan my initial one is “it’s about time” but of course what happens there hinges on the outcome of peace talks and on whether or not the Afghan government ever gets a handle on its massive corruption problem. The Taliban is winning and those 7000 US soldiers clearly aren’t preventing that. If removing them can help give diplomacy a real chance to end that war then remove them. The window of opportunity to defeat the Taliban wholesale closed years ago, if it ever was open in the first place. Negotiating is the only thing that’s going to ease the destruction this war has wrought on the Afghan people. And if you need a military justification, negotiating is the surest way to drive a wedge between the more extreme elements of the Taliban–the Haqqanis, for example–and the rest of the organization.)
As you’re reading the hagiographies of James Mattis that are already starting to pour out of our courtier media, consider that what got him to quit wasn’t the ramped up bombing campaigns, the looser rules about civilian casualties that led to more civilian casualties, the ongoing effort to enable a genocide in Yemen, etc. What finally made him quit was that Trump made two decisions that, assuming they’re implemented, will actually reduce America’s global military footprint. You can argue about the merits of those decisions and, especially, about the manner in which Trump made them, but you can’t get around the fact that the sainted Jim Mattis was fine massacring Yemeni kids but drew the line at pulling 2000 or so US soldiers out of Syria.
You might also want to remember that James Mattis has spent two years lending the immense credibility he’s somehow accumulated to give support and heft to an administration filled with white nationalists advancing a neofascist political agenda. He’s gladly–eagerly, even–participated in cheap political stunts on behalf of that administration. Most recently he oversaw the deployment of active duty soldiers to our southern border to of-course-we-wouldn’t-but-what-if-we-did-wink-wink threaten to gun down a bunch of starving Central American migrants in cold blood as a pure act of pre-election theater designed to appeal to racist Trump voters. He’s an asshole.
What does Mattis’s departure mean? Well, about that:
To which all I can say is, for the wheels to come off there would have to have been wheels on there in the first place. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that’s ever been the case.
Mattis has long gotten credit for being the “adult” in the Trump administration, and if you hang out online as much as I do you’ll find hints and rumors to the effect that Mattis is pretty much the sole reason we didn’t go to war with North Korea last year. I have no idea if that’s true. It may very well be. Let’s say it is, for argument’s sake. You’re now going to see similar sentiments to the effect that Mattis’s departure will make war with Iran more likely because Mattis isn’t going to be there to rein in Trump’s worst instincts and/or to counterbalance John Bolton. This would seem to assume facts that are not in evidence.
I fully recognize the near certainty that Mattis’s replacement will be worse–Tom Cotton and former CIA director/current batshit neocon James Woolsey were the two names who immediately came to mind, Jim Talent, Jack Keane, and Dan Coats are often mentioned as possible Mattis replacements, and Kelly Ayotte strikes me as another possibility though her relationship with Trump has been up and down. But Mattis is quitting because he doesn’t have any influence with Trump any more. Even if we’re assuming that Mattis prevented a war with North Korea last year, there is no reason to believe he could do something like that now. Being the “adult” in the administration doesn’t matter much if nobody is listening to you.
If Trump were hell bent on starting a war with Iran, what would Mattis have been able to do about it at this point? There’s obviously no way to know, but it would seem, from the events of the past couple of days, not very much. So the worst case scenario is that Trump is replacing someone to whom he’ll refuse to listen with somebody who might say “hell yeah, Mr. President, I think invading Iran would kick ass.” Which is definitely worse, but probably not enough to mean the difference between war and peace. If this situation fills you with unease, I can’t say that I blame you. But I think the thing you’re uneasy about–Donald Trump off the leash–was true whether Mattis stayed or not.
Hopefully this will be the last one of these hair on fire moments we need to dissect in 2018. I don’t mean any offense by that but I really could use a break. So with that said, I’ll see you all back here tomorrow after Trump announces that he’s just appointed Jared Kushner as Commandant of the Marine Corps. Until then, just marvel at the fact that we’re living in an era where this chyron is possible: