The world is no longer safe for democracy. For the past century, the United States stood watch as Western alliances expanded and freedom spread. Progress ebbed and flowed. Ground was undoubtedly lost under President Donald Trump. Yet we could take solace in knowing America’s military remained in the steady, safe hands of a highly respected retired Marine general.
That all changed yesterday. American Defense Secretary John Mattis’ sudden resignation shook the foundations of our national security structure in a way few personnel or policy changes could reverberate. Our nation, the world, is now grappling with the loss of the one man we believed could save us from catastrophe.
He was a good soldier. Not one prone to quickly throwing in the towel over personal slights or shifting political winds. So what does it say about President Trump’s plans that a man so committed to his duty would feel it simply untenable to carry on? It is alarming to think that a man who weathered fierce battles and myriad political storms in Washington could simply no longer muster the will or way to fight for his country.
Unlike many in the current administration, General Mattis wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. His was the voice of reason in an age of virulance. He would remind the president of the costs and consequences of words and wars. I shudder at the thought of how precariously we are now perched on the precipice of calamitous conflict.
Despite the tweets and tempestuous times at the White House, we were told the generals were a safeguard for our national security. One by one, Trump has dishonorably dismissed them, or made them so disillusioned with their duty that they had no choice but to leave. Those that remain in the administration, Bolton, Pompeo, and Miller, are largely illogical idealogues. They place the attainment of political gain over the advice of those military officers. Gone is the notion that our nation is bound by principles, pacts, and proven past practices.
What does this mean for the world? In short, the United States will no longer serve in the tallest and most tested watchtowers on the frontiers of the free world. We are abandoning our outposts and retreating within the walls of our borders. The withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan are clearly illustrative of this new policy. They are the reasons General Mattis could no longer face the men and women of our armed forces with a clear conscience.
No respectable military leader would embrace Trump’s shortsighted, self-interested, and strategically stupid moves. They know all too well how hard-fought were the gains we achieved in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. They can name those we lost. They don’t want to go back there again.
After Trump pulled the US out of the Iran Deal, I wrote here in the New Statesman that we are entering the post-American era – a time of dramatically diminished American influence around the world. My warning to foreign leaders was that the United States could no longer be counted on to serve as a pillar of global security and stability. New alliances need to be formed, new strategies devised.
Yesterday, we witnessed the last general of the American era bring a sobering end to his service. It was an acknowledgement that even his brilliance and bravery were no match for the populist forces sweeping over a significant part of our nation. Historians will look back at this as a watershed moment. This is when the long and steadfast tradition of our military defending freedom and democracy died.
There will still be great American military leaders. Yet, none will enjoy the status and sway of their storied predecessors. Their mission, will now be more narrowly defined in the national interest. The lore and legacy of indispensable country coming to the aid of democracy in its hour of need will fade. We have surrendered the special sense of purpose and pride that inspired generations to its ranks and allies to its side.
General Mattis will be remembered for answering the call of duty one last time. He diligently defended an institution, a nation he loved so dearly. We may never be able to restore our lost lustre and or the unrivaled global leadership we once enjoyed. I sincerely hope that military and civilian leaders of the future will look back on his service as a source of strength. The last general of the American era is likely to continue to be a stark symbol of how far we have fallen and what it will take to restore our honor.
Brett Bruen was Director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and an American diplomat. He is president of the crisis communications firm the Global Situation Room, Inc. and teaches crisis management at Georgetown University.