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Mattis: His Big Mistake
By Brad Johnson
January 3, 2019
After President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. military presence from the Syrian theater of operations, Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis decided to resign his post. In a one-page letter of resignation, Mattis made his reasons quite clear. He stated: “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 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.”
While the media likes to report that Mattis was the adult in the room at the Oval Office, that was inaccurate from the beginning. Mattis does indeed have decades of experience in the military as a retired Marine four-star general. But there is a universal truth that isn’t often mentioned publicly: All generals who get their third or fourth star are political. They learn to be adept politically or they don’t achieve the rank.
Relationship With Trump
One of the talents that is a must-have along the way is how to manage upwards effectively. This was one of Gen. Mattis’s talents when interacting with the president, not the anti-Trump fantasy world of the mainstream media that consistently implied Mattis would magically manipulate Trump during their interactions, stopping him from spilling evil onto the world. The fact is, Mattis did what any military professional would: He gave the best information he had, he expressed his opinion and recommendations, and waited for the decision from the president, which he accepted as the lawful orders of a superior. This is a method that is very easy for Trump to process, and the two got along well. Mattis, being personally quite liberal, did create a number of areas of contention within the administration, particularly with regard to personnel. He had a number of pitched battles over bringing in liberal friends to positions of importance in the administration. As with all such political battles, you win some and you lose some, and so it went for Mattis.
All that aside, Mattis resigned over the issue of Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria. From his letter of resignation, it’s clear that the reason was linked to the relationships we had built in the region, particularly with the Kurds.
Mattis is correct that, without help, the Kurds are going to be ruthlessly tracked down by the Turks and killed. He believes that the moral dilemma created by abandoning the Kurds to destruction at the hands of the Turks is something he wasn’t willing to accept, which is understandable. However, this is a classic blunder on Mattis’s part. He’s linking the Syrian pullout and support to the Kurds as a single issue, when, in fact, they are two separate issues. The president is making the correct decision to pull out of Syria. The original objectives of creating a significant Syrian fighting force to combat terrorists and pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave, as well as limiting Russian influence, have all failed utterly and completely. Some good was done against ISIS, but outside of that, nothing permanent or even of long-term value was accomplished. The Syrian countryside controlled gives us no advantage in negotiations, and the Assad regime, with Russian backing, has further consolidated its influence and control. Staying permanently in Syria for such slim gains makes no sense.
With his resignation, Mattis has abandoned the Kurds for a second time by leaving, when he could stay and argue to support them. Trump made a good decision to pull out. Let’s hope he makes another good decision and supports the Kurds, although he’ll have to do it without Mattis acting like the adult in the room.