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Mattis' exit leaves Trump surrounded by yes-men

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Michael Knigge
December 21, 2018

Defense Secretary James Mattis' resignation, one day after Donald Trump's stunning move to pull all US troops from Syria, is consequential. But his exit is alarming and could make US foreign policy even more erratic.

USA Donald Trump und James Mattis
Image: Reuters/Y. Gripas

The list of former Trump officials is extensive, steadily growing — and includes many names one need not remember. But the name that will be added to the list by the end of February is arguably the most important and most consequential yet: James Mattis.

The Pentagon chief announced his impending exit in a two-page letter on Thursday on the heels of President Trump's surprising decision to pull all US forces out of Syria with immediate effect. The letter was striking for two reasons. First, it contained no nicely worded praise for Trump. And second, it made amply clear that Mattis resigned because his view of US foreign and defense policy clashes with that of Trump. Neither is surprising.

Mattis was the only Cabinet member who openly and consistently resisted lavishing public praise on a needy President Trump in Cabinet meetings more reminiscent of an autocracy than a democracy.

Read more: Trump's motive for Syria withdrawal remain as murky as its implementation

Michael Knigge
Michael Knigge is DW's US correpondent

Clashing views

To be clear, Mattis, like anyone serving this president, is complicit in many of the abhorrent policies implemented by this administration, for instance, the inhumane separation of migrant children from their parents and the travel ban.  But unlike others, Mattis at least tried to mitigate or avert what he considered Trump's most ill-advised positions. Shortly after the election, but before Trump was even sworn in, Mattis publicly disagreed with Trump's pledge to bring torture back as an interrogation tool. Mattis, despite his misgivings about the Iran nuclear deal, wanted the US to remain in the pact. Mattis was also deeply skeptical about first Trump's saber-rattling vis-a-vis North Korea followed by an awkward bromance between the US president and the dictator in Pyongyang.

Mattis also disagreed with Trump's oft-expressed desire to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Syria. The president's tweeted order to withdraw all troops from Syria on Tuesday was likely only the straw that broke the camel's back.

Finally, and crucially, Mattis clashed with Trump about the trans-Atlantic alliance. During the presidential campaign, Trump had once called NATO "obsolete," a remark he never convincingly walked back because it arguably is how he really feels about the military alliance. It is here that the contrast with Mattis could not be starker. A four-star general whose career included leading a NATO command, Mattis views the alliance as crucial and routinely relayed his support for NATO to anxious European allies.

Everything is pecuniary

Trump does not believe in enduring alliances, does not believe in shared values or the importance of history. For him, everything is purely transactional, everything is pecuniary. This sentiment clashes with Mattis' worldview that places importance on enduring partnerships and common values, which has been, broadly speaking, the traditional stance espoused by previous US presidents.

What makes Mattis' exit so consequential is that he was the last influential adviser in Trump's Cabinet whose view of the world and of the US role in it aligned with that of America's key European partners. That's why European leaders and diplomats considered Mattis, whose influence had been waning for some time, as a last bulwark against a totally erratic and irresponsible president. With their ally Mattis on the way out, Europe and NATO should now brace themselves.     

'The world is a very dangerous place'

When Mattis leaves his post at the end of February, Trump will be fully surrounded by yes-men, who essentially perform for an audience of one and always say what they think the boss wants to hear. That is a menacing prospect for the world, especially since this presidency has not even reached its halfway mark yet.

In his recent ruthless statement in support of the Saudi leadership after the murder of US-based journalist Kashoggi, Trump declared: "America First! The world is a very dangerous place!" It may sound hyperbolic and alarmistic, but Mattis' exit really could enable Trump to live up to these words in ways we might not even imagine.