Wall Street Journal Editorial 12.22.2018
Cabinet officers come and go in Washington with little lasting political impact, but the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday strikes us as a major political event that is likely to reverberate for the rest of Donald Trump’s term and damage him in ways the President doesn’t seem to appreciate.
It should be said that the former Marine General resigned in honorable fashion. If a cabinet officer or White House aide can no longer in good conscience serve a President on a matter fundamental to his duties, then resignation is the correct choice. The disreputable course is to write a newspaper op-ed under the byline Anonymous, or remain on the job and sabotage policies like a bureaucratic mole.
The resignation damage isn’t that Mr. Mattis is indispensable or is the last “grown-up” chaperone for Mr. Trump, as the Washington cliche has it. The President will find someone to run the Pentagon, whether out of patriotism as Mr. Mattis did or ambition.
The more lasting damage will derive from the shoddy, humiliating way Mr. Trump treated the secretary and his generals on such a core military issue as deployments in Syria. Jim Mattis is not some neoconservative bent on staying in Syria for years. He is less hawkish on Syria and Iran than national security adviser John Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Yet in deciding to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, Mr. Trump acted on his own impulses with little more than cursory consultation with his military advisers. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has let it be known he wasn’t consulted at all. A month ago Gen. Dunford told Congress that Islamic State wasn’t defeated, but on Thursday Mr. Trump declared victory.
It’s one thing to advise a President and be overruled. But it undercuts the Pentagon’s authority to learn after the fact that the Commander in Chief has acted without so much as fare thee well. As Gen. Dunford’s immediate supervisor in the chain of command, Mr. Mattis must have been embarrassed as well.
This is about more than two egos, though both the general and Mr. Mattis are modest men. This is about the message Mr. Trump is sending to the men and women under their command. He is telling soldiers that he will act on uninformed impulse, after a phone conversation from a Turkish dictator, without deliberation or due respect. Mr. Trump should know that tens of thousands of his “deplorables” are in uniform or are veterans. He has stuck a finger in their eye.
Then there is the disdain his Syrian withdrawal shows for allies, especially the Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces. These have been our ground forces in clearing out the Islamic State caliphate. They took the casualties. Yet now, and without any warning, the U.S. President is telling these comrades-in-arms to fend for themselves. If they are slaughtered by Turkish tanks or Iranian barrel bombs, Mr. Trump will share responsibility.
As Mr. Mattis wrote in his resignation letter, “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”
If Mr. Trump were wise, he would ruminate on these words from an adviser who has worked hard and long to reassure allies around the world that Mr. Trump’s word is good. The alarm many of Mr. Trump’s voters feel—men and women who have stuck with him so far—is that the President will instead interpret this only through the lens of his own ego.
Journalist Robert Merry, who is sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s overseas restraint, wrote recently with regret that Mr. Trump is likely to lose re-election through “behavioral incontinence” and that the “biggest losers” will be his voters. Mr. Trump should ruminate on that too.