Jim Mattis was the last grown up in Trump’s cabinet. Here’s why his resignation is worrying

The defense secretary – known alternately as “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk” – was one of the last voices of reason in an increasingly chaotic administration.

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General Jim Mattis, the US secretary of defense, who announced his resignation late Thursday night, always hated the nickname “Mad Dog”. He may have been a general in the elite US Marine Corps, with an illustrious combat record, but he was also a scholarly figure, with a reported 7,000-volume library that he took with him on every tour of duty.

In fact, during his tenure heading the Pentagon, Mattis developed such a reputation as a thoughtful, sober operator that the hot-headed Donald Trump satirised his nickname dismissively, taking to mocking him by calling him “Moderate Dog.”

The announcement of his resignation, which came late Thursday evening, was not surprising to many in the Washington establishment. Mattis and the president had clashed this week over US troop deployment to Syria and Afghanistan: on Thursday, against the advice of his military staff, including Mattis, Trump announced that he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria, and also indicated that his administration was making plans to pull US forces from Afghanistan as well.

This appears to have been the final straw for Mattis. In his resignation letter, which is all the more excoriating for its subtlety, Mattis said: “Because you have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are more aligned with yours … I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” He would be leaving the Defense Department on February 28, 2019, he announced in his letter.

In quiet paragraphs that stop just short of criticising the president directly, but whose subtext is unmistakably critical of Trump’s approach to foreign policy, Mattis wrote that:

“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.”

You can read the letter in full here.

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You do not have to read between the lines too closely in the letter to see that Mattis believes that Trump is showing catastrophic lack of respect to those international alliances which he describes. As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman describes it, the letter represents “an astonishing rebuke of Trumpism”.

In withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Syria, Trump clearly hopes for a domestic political victory. His bizarre announcement, coming in a tweet on Wednesday, that “We have defeated Isis in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency,” shocked many of his miltary aides, including Mattis, as well as America’s international allies.

Florence Parly, the French minister for the armed forces, tweeted that Isis “had not been cleared off the map, nor, for that matter, have its roots been cleared.” On Thursday, UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson also contradicted Trump’s claims, saying that “much hard work still lies ahead to ensure we win the war.”

Doubling down, Trump then tweeted: “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?”

“Do we want to be there forever?” he added. “Time for others to finally fight.”

The withdrawal decision is also a big win for Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reported. Of course it is: it leaves the regime of the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has used chemical weapons to massacre his own people over the course of the brutal years-long civil war, free to return to its status of Russian client-state.

This seems to have been the final straw for Mattis, who becomes the last of the generals Trump appointed to his cabinet to step down – a group which included General John Kelly, who is stepping down as White House chief of staff at the end of this year, and General Michael Flynn, who is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.

Mattis has clashed with Trump over many issues during his tenure at the Pentagon. He publicly split from the president over several issues, including Trump’s announcement that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military (a policy which Trump tweeted but which the Department of Defense, lacking direct orders, simply did not enact) and Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He seemed to have managed to find a style which avoided direct confrontation with the president and even managed to change Trump’s mind on the subject of the efficacy of torture.

When Mattis met Trump for the first time during the transition at the end of 2016 Trump asked him: “What do you think of waterboarding?”, according to an interview Trump later gave The New York Times. Mattis’ response, which Trump said surprised him, was: “I’ve never found it to be useful,” adding “I’ve always found that if you give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”

That this actually changed Trump’s mind on the subject is a rare and surprising event – Trump rarely, if ever, changes his mind on anything – and it cemented Mattis’ image not just as one of the grown ups in the room, but also as almost a Trump-whisperer, someone with the almost unique gift in the administration of being able to redirect the president away from his more dangerous misconceptions.

It is unclear who Mattis’ successor will be, but it seems extremely unlikely that whoever it is will have this gift. In fact, with the Mueller investigation closing in around Trump, it seems more likely that he would pick a loyalist and toady, rather than an experienced and clear-headed operator, to head the world’s largest military force. Trump has already, despite Mattis’ influence, discovered that he can use the US military for political purposes: in the run-up to November’s midterm elections he deployed more than 5,000 US troops to America’s Southern border in order to whip up fears of the non-existent dangers of a “caravan” of migrants approaching the US from Central America.

It seems likely that such stunts – as well as, perhaps, even more dangerous uses of the US military – will become more common now that one of the administration’s steadier hands is departing. In the meantime, it leaves National Security Advisor John Bolton – a much more hawkish and less thoughtful operator with some dangerously hardline views who has previously called for, among other things, pre-emptive nuclear strikes against North Korea and who, unlike Mattis, is a hardline opponent of the Iran nuclear deal.

Without Mattis, Bolton is now, to all intents and purposes, in sole charge of the world’s most powerful military force. That should trouble us all.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.