The resignation of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not come as a great surprise. In fact, it was to be expected after President Donald Trump announced the US troop withdrawal from Syria, contradicting long reiterated affirmations by various US officials that the troops would stay, at the very least, as long as Iran remains present in Syria, as National Security Adviser John Bolton put it.
There have been no signs of a reduction in the Iranian presence. If anything, Tehran’s position in Syria has been reinforced thanks to Turkey and Russia. But Trump announced the troop withdrawal anyway, and Mattis resigned.
Perhaps more important than the departure of the last “adult” in the Trump administration, as some media have put it, is the substance of Mattis’s resignation letter. It conveyed three basic points: that it is time for the US to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with the president’s; that the US needs to treat its allies with respect; and thirdly, that the US must be “resolute and unambiguous” in its approach to China and Russia.
The letter, which itemised the grounds for Mattis’s resignation, underscored the basic divides in the US over foreign policy and, perhaps more profoundly, domestic policy and the prevailing ideology.
The Mattis resignation is not the first or last resignation of a US defense secretary. Such events typically occur with transitions from one presidential administration to the next or at the time of mid-term congressional elections.
But this one is totally different, because Donald Trump is unlike any of his predecessors. He is a new phenomenon in the US political order. Perhaps it features an element of the isolationist policies that followed the US war of independence or World War I when Washington refused to join the League of Nations and shut its eyes to what lay beyond the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.
But we are now in the 21st century, more than 50 years after the establishment of an international order led by the US since the end of World War II with the existence of a Soviet rival during the Cold War, and without a rival following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
More importantly, it looks like this new phenomenon is related to something deeper, coming from within the US. When Mattis writes that the president needs a defense secretary whose views are more aligned with the president’s, this means that the gap between the president and that official, and most probably the defense establishment as a whole, is unbridgeable.
This is not about personality clashes. It is about fundamental differences that have surfaced on a number of occasions. Here is a president who has publicly indicated that he thinks he knows more than his generals. In one unprecedented incident, the world heard a US president say that his country had not won a war since World War II. His criticisms extended beyond the Pentagon to include the entire security establishment, including the CIA. When the CIA announced findings confirming that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, Trump came out in favour of President Vladimir Putin’s denials.
Mattis was the last representative in the Trump administration of a school of thought that believed that the US president, regardless of who he might be, cannot depart from major US policy lines and that he can be guided to make the right decisions if aware of government secrets and the heavy responsibilities that rest on his shoulders.
Presidents come and go, but the US and its strategic interests and assets remain constant. Among the most important of these are NATO, the joint defense treaty between Washington and Tokyo, the EU as an important wing of the Western camp and the Anglophone intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.
All these arrangements and institutions were the product of the enormous efforts the US had invested in order to counter the Soviet Union and communist ideology and to create such global institutions as the World Trade Organisation, an embodiment of globalisation and liberal ideology and the technologies that bind the planet and organise humankind’s forays into outer space. But Trump was not convinced. In fact, he frequently expressed his “lack of respect” for America’s allies, NATO and the EU.
Trump comes from different school. He doesn’t see the world as one. He does not even share a vision for a world becoming one, in the ways it deals with crucial concerns from trade to global warming. To him, the world is made up of discrete national entities, each having its own set of interests and abilities.
To him, the entity that he is in charge of — the US — has little interest in the welfare of the rest of the world. It cares about its own welfare and the welfare of its people or, more accurately, the white people who have been trampled on by the march of “coloured” peoples from all quarters of the world.
So, the Trump approach is to deal with the world as separate units, each with its own bilateral relationship with the US. Multilateral organisations like the UN, WTO and NAFTA mean nothing if they mean moving US factories to Mexico or letting China have a permanent trade surplus over the US.
When Mattis, in his resignation letter, stressed that the US needed to be “resolute and unambiguous” in its approach to Russia and China, this was not because those two countries are competitors but because they are among the forces that seek to revise the world order led by the US.
Trump does not see the situation that way. He does not want a costly US leadership of the world order, especially if that leadership entails heavy military costs and the painful costs of wars such as those in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Syria.
As for bilateral relations between nation-state entities, they differ from one case to the next. US interests may overlap with one country and they might conflict with those of another. Perhaps trade is a source of tension between China and the US because the former continually insists on retaining the perks granted to developing nations whereas, in fact, it is an economic superpower.
On the other hand, the two countries can harmonise when it comes to nuclear disarmament in the Korean peninsula, even if such harmony would not extend to the South China Sea. The same applies to Russian-US relations. Washington and Moscow can see eye-to-eye on the war against the Islamic State group and against terrorism in general, but not on the question of Ukraine.
Mattis’s resignation was revealing. It comes on top of the resignations of John Kelly as White House chief of staff, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and Herbert McMaster as national security adviser. In the US media, this has been described as the exodus of the “adults” in the Trump administration. In fact, they represent an entire school of thought in US foreign policy. Trump, now, is totally free to pursue his own policy, pure and simple.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Exodus of the adults