While famously media shy during his time in government, former Defense Secretary James Mattis offered a brief glimpse into his thoughts on today’s political environment in an essay and interview last week, but the appearance left several questions unanswered.
These rare media appearances are not random, as Mattis will be appearing at several events in the coming days to promote his new book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.” The two pieces delve into why the former Marine Corps general chose to serve as secretary of defense and why he resigned. There are some new details about the journey, but his thoughts on several key points remain unclear. One common theme is his desire to stay above the fray when it comes to politics.
“He felt as a Marine, when he was asked to serve the country there was no question he was going to serve. Period. He felt he was capable of doing it and it never occurred to him to say no,” said Bing West, Mattis’ co-author. “He was asked by the commander in chief to do a mission, he said I’m going to do the mission.”
But Mattis resigned less than two years later, citing policy differences with President Trump. “I had no choice but to leave,” Mattis said.
According to his resignation letter, Mattis left due to concerns regarding the administration’s relationship with key military allies. While he does not accuse Trump of disregarding them outright, he did say the president has “the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
Behind the scenes, it was Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria that was the final straw for the former Marine Corps general.
“You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to IS. I’m not going to do it,” Mattis reportedly told Trump.
Trump did not pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, and while experts are still concerned about IS as a threat, there is no indication that the U.S. or its partners are necessarily losing. Trump is also known to change his mind on policy issues on occasion, something Mattis might have expected. In June, Trump called off a retaliatory strike against Iran after Iranian forces shot down a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf due to his belief that the casualty count would not have been proportional.
“It’s all about timing. We were much more effective at killing ISIS with Mattis and Trump at the helm than in the previous years. But to keep the caliphate from forming again, we need to ensure we have a coalition in place to keep at the work,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “And believe me, I want us to have as small a footprint as possible in the Middle East. It’s sand and death, as the president called Syria. We need to make a serious shift in resources to the Indo Pacific.”
Throughout his interview and essay, Mattis focuses on the importance of the military staying above politics. His replacement, Mark Esper, reiterated this point in his first press briefing as defense secretary on Wednesday.
“You know, as I answered to Congress during my nomination hearing … my commitment is to keep this department apolitical,” Esper said.
While that may be easier for the military rank and file, its significantly more difficult for an appointed secretary.
“The secretary of defense is a political leader. He’s not apolitical,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “They’re in a different category than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the chief of staff of the Army, that’s not commonly understood.”
Mattis credits his 40 years in the Marine Corps for much of his knowledge, but Spoehr noted that there is one thing the military doesn’t necessarily prepare someone to navigate Washington.
“The military career doesn’t prepare you well for politics, lets just put it that way,” Spoehr said. “Things are much more defined, there’s a process, there’s a hierarchy, typically people do what they are told to do. And in politics, all bets are off. People have a different set of motivations, which is hard for a career military officer.”