Jeffrey Goldberg: Mattis always understood Trump’s severe defects
Two years is not an enormous amount of time to shape an institution as unwieldy as the Pentagon; Mattis’s legacy as secretary will not be what he accomplished internal to the department, or what by now appears to have been a transient increase in resources for the department.
His choice to do his job silently, while perhaps understandable given the president’s envious narcissism, has been detrimental to the war effort. Granted, the president and the Congress are principally responsible for taking the country to war and determining what level of our national effort to commit to war efforts. President Donald Trump is disgracefully detached from any sense of responsibility for the men and women he puts in harm’s way. Nor does the Congress shoulder its share of responsibility, declining to exercise its constitutional prerogative of deciding when America should go to war—its complicity in stretching the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to cover current operations should alarm all Americans.
But the secretary of defense also has obligations to his other constituents: the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines of our country’s military services. The secretary owes them a voice not just in policy making but in shaping public understanding of their service, and Mattis has not provided that voice.
Policing civil-military issues is an important element of the secretary of defense’s job. No one knows that better than Mattis, the first recent veteran to serve as secretary since George Marshall in 1950, and the co-editor of an excellent book on civil-military relations. It was shocking, therefore, to see the president sign his travel ban in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon early in the administration. Allowing such a highly political decision to be enacted in that venue suggested a national-security basis for the policy and detrimentally associated our military with the ban. That the White House sprung that trap on the Department of Defense illustrates the gale-force political winds in which the secretary has been operating. And in grading his work, the force of those winds needs to be taken into account, just as the degree of difficulty is taken into account when grading Olympic diving.
David Frum: No more excuses
The president of the United States has transgressed civil-military norms frequently—treating speeches to troops as campaign rallies, using military titles for civilian appointees to give the appearance of military support for him personally and for his policies. The vice president, too, is a flagrant violator of civil-military norms. He used a Naval Academy graduation as a political rally. And Trump is attempting to cast Mattis’s resignation as a military retirement rather than a conscientious objection to his policies.