For almost two full years, James Mattis has provided the nation with a collective security blanket—and national-security-minded Republicans with a credible excuse. Whatever outrageous or weird or even suspicious things President Donald Trump might do, Mattis was at the head of the order of battle: an American through and through, untainted and uncompromised.
Now Mattis has quit. His letter of resignation stated explicitly that the secretary and the president disagreed about “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.” It omitted the customary courtesies to the president: no statement that it was an honor to serve him, no words about common purposes, not even a final “Respectfully yours” before the signature.
What to make of Mattis’s challenge and warning?
So long as Mattis stayed on the job, Republicans in Congress could indulge the hope that responsible people remained in charge of the nation’s security. That hope has now been repudiated by the very person in whom the hope was placed. It’s James Mattis himself who is telling you that the president does not treat allies with respect, does not have a clear-eyed view of malign actors and strategic competitors.
In Syria, the United States is abandoning Kurdish comrades-in-arms who trusted America’s word. The U.S. is now preparing to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Brussels on December 4 to insult the European Union on its home ground. Trump has egged on Brexit, dangling a (completely false) hope of a speedy U.S.-U.K. free-trade treaty to encourage hard-line Brexiteers to crash out of the EU in March without a transitional treaty. Meanwhile, sanctions are being lifted on the enterprises of Paul Manafort’s former patron Oleg Deripaska, even as the U.S. continues to wage trade war not only upon China, but against Canada, the U.K., and the European Union as well.
From the beginning of the administration, its more normal members have sought to present Donald Trump’s instincts as somehow consistent with American policy since 1945, somehow a version of normal U.S. leadership. “America First doesn’t mean America alone,” wrote Gary Cohn and H. R. McMaster in a joint op-ed in May 2017.
But it turns out none of that is true. Donald Trump is not even a little bit concerned about cooperation and relationships. He holds his own word notoriously worthless, and he sees no problem in doing the same to the nation’s. His “America First” may not mean “America alone”—but only because his America is now disturbingly and mysteriously beholden to cash-rich counterparts: Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia.
Mattis saw it up close. He bore it as long as he could, in hopes of mitigating the damage. But when Trump broke America’s promise to the Syrian Kurds, he stained Mattis’s honor, too. That, apparently, Mattis could not accept. He leaves and takes his honor with him. And now the question for Congress is: The Klaxon is sounding. The system is failing. What will you do?
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