President Trump announced that Secretary of State James Mattis will be leaving his post at the Pentagon sooner than expected. The President named Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan as the new head of the Department of Defense. The President made the announcement via Twitter this morning.
“I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019. Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!” the President wrote.
Mattis resigned this week in the wake of the President’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The U.S. currently has about 2,000 special ops personnel in that country. Their mission is to advise and train the Syrian rebel forces who are fighting ISIS. They have been stationed in the country since 2014.
Mattis reportedly strongly counseled the President against that decision. The President’s announcement caught many within the administration by surprise.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time in Syria. I’ve been president for almost two years and we’ve really stepped it up and we have won against ISIS we’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly we’ve taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” the President said in the announcement.
Many senior national security officials, including Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security adviser John Bolton advised the President against pulling the U.S. out of Syria. Withdrawing U.S. troops from that country would allow ISIS to reconstitute and powers hostile to U.S. interests – namely Russia and Iran – to gain influence, they argue.
It also assures that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator who has twice been accused by the international community of using chemical weapons against his own people, stays in power for the foreseeable future.
In the end, the President was unconvinced by those arguments.
“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? Time for others to finally fight…..” he wrote on Twitter after the announcement.
The decision was the last straw for Mattis, who has had differences of opinion with the President before.
The four-star general reportedly had fifty copies of his resignation letter printed out and ready to be distributed throughout the Pentagon upon his return from the White House. The letter, scathing, by senior military official standards, cites the reason for the resignation as a fundamental difference in outlook between Mattis and the President about the world order and the U.S.’ role in it.
“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,” Mattis wrote.
“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,” Mattis wrote.
Mattis originally set the end of February as his resignation date, citing upcoming Congressional hearings on the national military posture and a NATO Defense Ministerial meeting that month.
The President has reportedly been bothered by the fact that Mattis’ break with him was so public and the coverage that narrative was receiving in the national media. He decided to end Matts’ tenure earlier than planned. The White House described having a Secretary of Defense that was essentially a “lame duck” as untenable.
In another blow to the President, senior national security official Brett McGurk also announced his resignation in protest over Mr. Trump’s Syria policy. McGurk is the U.S. special envoy to the International anti-ISIS coalition.
“The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy,” McGurk wrote in an email to his staff that was viewed by The Associated Press. “It left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered with no plan in place or even considered thought as to consequences.”
McGurk’s departure however was downplayed by the President.
“Brett McGurk, who I do not know, was appointed by President Obama in 2015. Was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander? The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!” he wrote on Twitter.
However, reaction to the news of the week, specifically Mattis’ resignation, was strong from Capitol Hill Republicans.
“Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter. It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted.
“I am particularly distressed that [Mattis] is resigning due to sharp differences with the president on…key aspects of America’s global leadership,” wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. “It is regrettable that the president must now choose a new Secretary of Defense. But I urge him to select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding of these vital principles and his total commitment to America’s servicemembers.”
The early months of 2019 promise to be rocky as the Senate now has to confirm a new Secretary of Defense along with a new Attorney General. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at President Trump’s request in November. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has filled the post since Sessions’ departure.
Photo by U.S. Department of Defense via Flickr