March 14, 2019


When The Commander in Chief Is 'Unfit,' What's a General to Do? Jim Mattis' Resignation Was Just a Beginning. (James Kitfield, Mar. 9th, 2019, Daily Beast)

"The warrior in Jim Mattis never quit on a mission in his life, but I could tell by the tone in his voice that day that he had reached his breaking point," Cohen said in an interview. He noted that Mattis had been increasingly at odds with the president on a list of weighty issues, from Trump's frequent contention that the NATO alliance is a swindle and the European Union "a foe," to his inexplicable deference to Putin in preference to his own intelligence community. "Knowing Jim Mattis and seeing Trump's fickle and impulsive leadership, and the shameful mental abuse that he routinely inflicts on his top advisers, I think Mattis only stuck around for as long as he did out of a strong sense of patriotism. But at some point you have to ask yourself if you can do the job and still maintain your sense of integrity."

In the short interim since the Mattis resignation the nation has endured the longest government shutdown in history, for instance, and President Trump delivered a State of the Union address in which he conjured a national security emergency out of an immigrant caravan on the southern border, while announcing a second summit with North Korea's truly threatening dictator Kim Jong Un, who Trump has "fallen in love" with over Kim's "beautiful letters."  

In late January, leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community testified before Congress and publicly contradicted the president's claims that a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons is no longer a threat, that ISIS has been defeated, and that the situation at the southern border with Mexico amounts to a national security emergency.

In the interim U.S. policy in the Middle East has also predictably devolved into strategic incoherence, with top Trump administration officials traveling to the region and announcing long-term conditions for the withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops that is already well underway, and then backtracking after being contradicted by President Trump's tweets.  In another jarring break with civil-military tradition, U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel recently publicly disagreed with his commander-in-chief's decision to pull troops out of Syria, stating unequivocally in an interview with CNN that ISIS has not been defeated. Then Trump reversed course yet again and announced that roughly 400 U.S. troops would be staying in Syria after all, along with allied partners.

In mid-February, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Europe and lashed out at the United States' closest and most important NATO allies for failing to fall obediently in line behind the Trump administration's unilateral decision to abandon a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, and then warned of a growing divide in transatlantic relations that is already acutely felt in Europe. Trump also officially declared a "national emergency" on the southern border in an effort to bypass Congress and build a wall with taxpayer money, an assault on Congressional authorities and the Constitution's separation of powers that a bipartisan group of 58 former senior intelligence, diplomatic and national security officials denounced as unjustified and a serious erosion of presidential credibility "with foreign leaders, both friend and foe."

To cap off the tumultuous month, Trump's late-February summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam collapsed in disarray, with Trump abruptly walking away from the negotiating table and foregoing a planned signing ceremony and North Korea resuming construction at a long-range missile testing facility.

Meanwhile, a number of media outlets recently reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will soon complete his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible Trump campaign collusion in that effort, even as Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress and alleged under oath that his former boss was involved as president in criminal activity.

Defense Secretary Mattis' resignation-in-protest may have sunk quickly beneath that tsunami of headlines, but it is viewed as an important marker by some of the nation's most respected former flag officers and national security officials precisely because the issues it highlighted put the current chaos and rapidly mounting crises into context. Their willingness to break with the nonpartisan tradition of even retired U.S. military and intelligence officials and speak out is due in part to the historic nature of the resignation and the respect accorded Mattis as one of the preeminent warrior intellectuals of his generation of military leaders. But his resignation is also notable for the critique of the commander-in-chief that accompanied it, and the belief by many stewards of U.S. national security that it largely explains why America and the alliance of free peoples that it professes to lead feel so dangerously unstable right now, with worse very likely to come.

"If we have someone who is as selfless and committed as Jim Mattis resigning his position, walking away from all the responsibility he feels for every service member in our forces, and he does so in a public way like that, we ought to stop and say, 'Okay, why did he do it?'" said retired General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and a Special Forces pioneer who was behind the 2006 killing of arch terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Speaking to ABC News' Martha Raddatz, McChrystal suggested that "we ought to ask what kind of commander-in-chief he had that Jim Mattis, 'the good Marine,' felt he had to walk away."

In the interview, McChrystal left no doubt that he believes the commander Mattis walked away from is not only fundamentally dishonest, but also "immoral." That assessment provides a "pretty good summary of what most generals think about the President's character," Admiral James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, wrote recently in Time Magazine. Stavridis attributes the exodus of Mattis and the other generals in Trump's inner circle to the president's chronic lack of discipline, indifference towards preparation and expert opinion, impulsive decision-making even on matters of great consequence, and instinctively dismissive attitude towards allies.

"I think Secretary Mattis clearly felt that Trump's attitude toward our allies hurt the U.S. position in the world, but the Syria pullout-done without benefit of a coherent interagency process-was the final straw," Stavridis wrote me in an email.

Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling formerly commanded the U.S. Army Europe, and he was an assistant division commander in Iraq. "I was not really surprised by Mattis' resignation, because I had been wondering what was taking him so long given how frequently Trump was walking his top advisers to the edge in terms of ethics and morality," he said in an interview. "What worries me now is that Trump has created an absolutely toxic leadership environment that has driven good people like Mattis away, and the replacements and those who remain have shown no courage nor inclination to push back against the president's worst impulses. Instead Trump has created a cabal of like-minded people who share his worldview and are loyal only to him, and I am very concerned how that dynamic will play out if the administration confronts a real crisis not of its own making."

Indeed, the issues surfaced by Mattis' resignation-in-protest, and others raised by a host of former senior officers and national security experts who have recently seconded his critique, deserve a close examination precisely because of the existential stakes.

Their writ starts with a backstabbing and chaotic White House-chronicled in meticulous detail in books like Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, Bob Woodward's Fear and Cliff Sims' Team of Vipers-that has driven away capable and experienced officials, made it difficult to replace them with qualified successors, and routinely produces haphazard decision making that sows chaos and interagency confusion.

Their case includes the president's stubborn disregard for factual truth, skewing real-world policies on issues ranging from North Korea's nuclear weapons to the supposed "defeat" of ISIS, and Trump's insistence on viewing everything through a partisan prism that politicizes all issues and erodes public trust in non-partisan institutions such as the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The critique also highlights Trump's belittling and transactional approach that has badly undermined venerable alliances, even as Trump maintains chummy and inexplicably obsequious relations with murderous dictators, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un.

Taken together, Defense Secretary Mattis' first ever resignation-in-protest and the issues it has surfaced represent the worst crisis in civil-military relations since the 2006 revolt of the generals against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the Iraq War.  In that instance eight senior retired generals made headlines by publicly calling for Rumsfeld's resignation on the grounds that he was on the cusp of losing a major war, with potentially devastating consequences for U.S. national security. Given that the target of today's critiques is the commander-in-chief himself, the stakes are exponentially higher, and the warnings even more dire.

"I'm not sure that a lot of my fellow Americans fully appreciate the fact that there are only two people in the country who can give a lawful order to launch a military strike and start a war, and one of them just resigned to protest the poor judgment of the other," retired General Barry McCaffrey, former commander of U.S. Southern Command and a decorated combat veteran, said in an interview.

Posted by at March 14, 2019 3:59 AM