A President has the right to remove cabinet secretaries; every president has, often several at once, as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both did. Cabinet secretaries have a right – sometimes an obligation – to resign if they find themselves at odds with the president. Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, did that with historic punch.
The right thing for a president is to accept the resignation, and swiftly replace a resigning secretary. The same day Ronald Reagan accepted Alexander Haig’s resignation as Secretary of State, Reagan appointed George Shultz, who stayed the next six and a half years.
That all said, we will miss Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. He was arguably a sage – the smartest, most seasoned, circumspect military scholar at flag rank, a former four-star general who led Central Command, widely recognized for battlefield courage. He was a selfless patriot – and gave up his “dream job” on principle. Examining why – the policy grounds – is worth our pause.
On one hand, I do not know the man, although colleagues do. On the other, we know a policy difference with President Trump over pulling all troops from Syria triggered his move. Man of integrity, Mattis could not counsel this sharp turn, so handed the reins back.
So, let’s examine the policy. Put aside Washington DC’s tiring game of “who’s on first.” We know Mattis’ capable deputy, Patrick Shanahan, will succeed him for now. Concentrate on what precipitated the policy divide. Here is how Secretary Mattis’s reasoning may have unfolded.
Friends close to him for decades say the Secretary is painfully thorough, and was even as a Colonel. When he wants to know something, how a process works, where events lead, he is unremitting. He will sit for hours listening, asking questions, and probing experts without regard to rank. The Secretary does not stand on form. He is all substance.
Another fact: Secretary Mattis cares deeply about America’s men and women in uniform, those who sign that “page two” when they deploy, directing where benefits go if they die. He cares about those who – in times past – wore our nation’s uniform, too.
You will say, how do you know? What makes you think he cares so much? Just this. Secretary Mattis learned – two years ago – of an unsung WWII vet in a small Maine town. Bronze Star winner in the brutal Italian Campaign, this vet was once a “first scout” among the “Blue Devils,” who liberated Anzio, Rome and Florence, helped pushed the Nazis out of Italy. Mattis wrote him a hand-written, one-page letter – thanking him. I saw it. When the old veteran died, a wreath arrived at the little white church, from Mattis. If he did this once, he did it many times. He cares.
Which brings us to that resignation decision. Surely, Mattis knew President Trump pledged to bring America’s service members home from Syria and Afghanistan when he took the job. The question was never whether, but always when, how and at what speed.
As architect of America’s anti-ISIS victory, Mattis knew President Trump was committed to bringing ISIS to its knees. Mattis helped him do that. American soldiers and the Kurdish Peshmerga forcefully dislodged ISIS, chasing the rump terror group into a northern corner of Syria. But Mattis knows ISIS is not yet over. Forest fires must be extinguished, not reduced. ISIS and al Qaeda remain pernicious, vicious, dogged foes, ideas that must be ended, while contained on the battlefield. We are not yet there.
Mattis knows if we pull chalks in Syria – all at once – we will be breaking our word, abandoning Kurds who fought with us. Beyond failing to extinguish ISIS and leaving “blood brothers” exposed to an impending Turkish onslaught, we may unintentionally throw doors open to Iranian and Russian influence. This will adversely affect Israel. Chances of miscalculation rise: Iran is may overplay their hand, get aggressive toward Israel from Syria, trigger a forceful Israeli response, possibly direct strikes on Iran, prompt Russian engagement. The deterrent of US forces, the trip-wire, will be gone.
You say, “Ah, now I see why Mattis resigned.” There is likely more. Imagine a similar move – suddenly evacuating Afghanistan for a political promise. Absent any incentive for negotiating peace or the US deterrent, we could expect rebirth of the terror movement that delivered us 9-11. Makes one pause.
There is one more reason. Mattis loves those in uniform, those who were, are and will be. He does not want new wars on a re-energized ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He does not want to re-mobilize large numbers to turn down a newly aggressive Iran or Russia in Syria, to save Israel. A fighter, Mattis is strategic; ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure. That is Mattis the military historian, battlefield commander, man of foresight.
Secretary Mattis resigned to deliver a message, or to get all of us to ask a question: Is the total pullout to fulfil a campaign pledge worth losing the deterrent that, so far, has kept terror from resurfacing in America? This is what we must all ponder, not least President Trump and his new Secretary of Defense.
Signs are, Mattis’ message was heard. Just today, the President has – while accelerating Mattis’ departure – confirmed he will slow our departure from Syria. Good men are forced to make hard decisions. Mattis is such a man, made such a decision. He deserves a long-held salute. He is an American patriot.