Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who submitted his resignation on Thursday, was the last “adult in the room” of the Trump administration — or so claim a small army of pundits, who now worry that the president, finally unchecked, will unleash an unvarnished, unpredictable America First foreign policy on the world.
There’s no arguing that Mr. Mattis is an admirable man who did his best to counter an erratic president. The question is whether he succeeded in his mission. Though Mr. Mattis ostensibly left because he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, in his letter of resignation he makes clear that it was really about the accumulation of slights and compromises that over his two-year tenure left him and his worldview sidelined.
Mr. Mattis’s original plan may have been to subtly guide the ship of state through treacherous international waters for four years. The president’s heedlessness and, especially, his disregard for the United States’ strategic alliances, partnerships and reputation made that scenario infeasible. If Mr. Mattis had ever hoped that veteran military figures like himself could rein in the president, that illusion was shattered in April with the ignominious departure of Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.
Mr. Mattis and the president occasionally agreed — for instance, on the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Initially, he and General McMaster got Mr. Trump to denounce torture (grudgingly), walk back the spurning of NATO, recertify the Iran nuclear deal (twice) and, to some extent, stiffen his position on President Vladimir Putin of Russia and sporadically acknowledge Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
But Mr. Trump did not consult Mr. Mattis before withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal or suspending joint United States-South Korea military exercises in June, at the Singapore summit — moves Mr. Mattis opposed. He ignored Mr. Mattis’s request that the White House secure congressional authorization before launching airstrikes in 2017 in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Mr. Mattis’s opposition to moving the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not seem to register, for even a second, with the president. Unlike some of his fellow cabinet members, Mr. Mattis never demeaned himself before the president in an effort to get his way.
Since early in the administration, when Mr. Mattis alone declined to indulge Mr. Trump the ritual adulation he demanded during an inane public cabinet meeting, it was clear the secretary of defense held the president in dubious regard. For a while, even as the failures mounted, Mr. Mattis seemed to be holding the line: He looked like a Spartan Marine helping rescue America from a willfully ignorant, libertine businessman.
Then, by early 2018, Mr. Trump started to gain confidence on foreign affairs and perhaps detect in Mr. Mattis — whom he initially fetishized as “Mad Dog,” the archetypal military tough guy, reportedly to Mr. Mattis’s chagrin — a note of condescension.
The president pushed out Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and General McMaster, Mr. Mattis’s de facto allies, and replaced them with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, two more simpatico hawks. As secretary of defense, Mr. Mattis still had bureaucratic control of the American military and its assets. But that afforded him only the power of delay and limited obstruction — not a practical veto or even, necessarily, a strong voice at the table in the White House Situation Room, especially with Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton backing the president’s every play.
That much was on display when the president ordered thousands of troops to the Mexican border this fall to repel the “caravan” of immigrants he said were mounting an “invasion” — a flagrantly cynical ploy to rile up his political base ahead of the midterms. Mr. Mattis seemed to understand that the deployment would amount to a technical breach of the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the use of the military for internal law enforcement; he sought to minimize the number of troops involved and slow-rolled the deployment. Publicly, however, he defended the move as “humanitarian,” proclaiming that “we don’t do stunts,” and ultimately acquiesced. Nor was he much for cabinet infighting. Mr. Mattis could have tried to outmaneuver Mr. Bolton — who has wanted him gone for some time — and stay in his job, discreetly devising stratagems for eluding dangers posed by Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior and blunting objectionable military initiatives.
James Schlesinger, secretary of defense when President Richard Nixon was self-medicated and irrational in the later days of Watergate, supposedly short-circuited Mr. Nixon’s major national security decision-making authority. But he had obliging senior colleagues, including Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state. Mr. Schlesinger was also a cocky civilian willing to circumvent the constitutional chain of command. Mr. Mattis is cut from more regimented cloth. As commanding officer of the United States Central Command in 2013, he was candid with President Barack Obama about his reservations concerning the administration’s conciliatory approach to Iran and quietly left his post early. Even as Republicans as well as Democrats criticized Mr. Trump’s nationalistic, anti-Europe displays in Brussels and Helsinki, Mr. Mattis offered no more than deflective, anodyne remarks. Although he admirably dragged his feet on barring transgender troops, holding a military parade and starting a space force, more interference might only have nourished Trumpian delusions about a “deep state.”
Mr. Mattis is undoubtedly a patriot, and a proud one. Out of office and having left of his own accord, he could now serve his country as a praetorian critic. Mr. Trump’s nominee to replace him is likely to be a pliant sycophant. But the present moment is propitious for an admired soon-to-be ex-official to air dire misgivings about the strategic state of the country. A galvanized Democratic majority intent on holding Mr. Trump and his administration in check is about to take over the House, and the heretofore craven Senate is showing signs of resistance. The adult who is leaving the room may now, finally, speak truth to power and be heard.
He may have been ‘the adult in the room,’ but he never offered much of a check on an errant president.
JONATHAN STEVENSON, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was director for political military affairs, Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.