The resignation of Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis is doubly disquieting: The departure of the retired Marine Corps general deprives the administration of an expert on national defense who is respected by Congress and America’s allies. But equally alarming is the reason for Mattis’ decision: his acknowledgement that the president doesn’t share his views about foundational principles of national security.
In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “While the U.S. 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.”
This is partly a reference to Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move that is seen as a betrayal by the Kurdish forces there who fought with the United States against Islamic State. Mattis emphasized that among the important alliances the U.S. has forged is the “Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations.”
But Mattis’ criticism has broader application. Trump, who famously called the NATO alliance “obsolete,” has only grudgingly endorsed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s principle of the concept of collective self-defense, and has focused more on carping about how European allies aren’t paying their “fair share of NATO.” This despite the fact that, as Mattis noted, members of NATO fought alongside the U.S. after the 9/11 attack.
Mattis’ differences with Trump apparently became too great to ignore. As Mattis wrote: “You have the right to have a secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
That Trump has isolationist impulses has been obvious since the 2016 campaign, when he said in a major policy speech that “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” In the same speech, Trump promised: “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”
Trump isn’t wrong to be fearful of indefinite military commitments or insistent about other NATO countries spending more on their defense. But his comments have consistently betrayed a poor understanding of the crucial importance of alliances, a dismissive attitude toward multilateral institutions and skepticism about the need for the U.S. to play a constructive leadership role on the world stage.
Fortunately, in choosing Mattis as his Defense serectary, Trump sent the reassuring signal that he was would be relying on an experienced leader who could be expected to argue with the president when he thought he was wrong. Mattis’ resignation suggests that he now thinks Trump is beyond persuasion. That is truly frightening.
It also raises the question of how, if at all, Trump can be influenced to replace Mattis with someone equally well-qualified but also willing to try to argue the president out of impulsive or ill-considered decisions.
This presents a challenge to the Senate that must vote to confirm a new secretary of Defense. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the purpose of Senate confirmation was to provide “an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the president, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity.”
That might suggest that the Senate is obligated to confirm a nominee who is qualified and not a crony, even if the Senate finds his views (and the president’s) disturbing. But Hamilton went on to say that confirmation “would be an efficacious source of stability in the administration.” Mattis and other officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tried to foster such stability by reminding Trump that some of his ideas were impractical and even illegal.
Under the Constitution, the president as commander-in-chief has the final say on military decisions. But the Senate would be within its rights to insist that Mattis’ successor be someone who would not be an echo chamber for an ignorant and impetuous president.