It’s Probably No Big Deal When Mattis Departs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Perhaps Jim Mattis should get new business cards, changing his job title from “Secretary of Defense” to “Adult in the Room.” Indeed, there is no question that he has been a moderating influence on a president who lacks that attribute entirely. As Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, put it, Mattis has been “the saucer that cools the coffee.”

If so, we are all in sudden danger of scalding.

Consider what’s happened in the last few days alone: Mattis stood behind Trump’s implausible “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman against accusations of assassinating a journalist; he tamped down criticism Trump received for failing to visit the troops in the war zones, by saying he personally had advised the president not to visit such dangerous corners of the world; and he justified deploying the world’s most potent military force to repel a border “invasion” by a ragtag caravan of migrants. 

What has he received in thanks for this sort of loyalty? The president went on “60 Minutes” and called him a “sort of” Democrat who has one foot out the door.

Does he? And, more importantly, how worried should we be if Mattis truly is atop the stand-by list in the White House departure lounge?

Barring a major security crisis, I don’t think it will make much difference whether he stays or goes. You could call that optimism or pessimism.

It’s not that Mattis hasn’t been this administration’s conscience in upholding American interests and security. He secured huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget. He persuaded Trump to increase, or at least maintain, the troop strengths in Afghanistan and in the fight against Islamic State – and, crucially, to give field commanders more authority in those conflicts. He helped nip in the bud Trump’s threat to give North Korea a military “bloody nose.”

He was influential in persuading Trump to abandon his most reckless campaign-trail promises, such as bringing back waterboarding and to “carpet bomb” ISIS and seize the oil fields under its control. And Mattis’s rear-guard action to avoid implementing Trump’s ban on transgender troops helped force the president to seek Supreme Court approval last week.

The early reviews were all raves: “The entire first year of Mattis’s tenure, he was indisputably the most powerful member of the cabinet and knew it, and everybody else knew it,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

But over the course of the second year, things have deteriorated badly.

Mattis was unable to save his two most important allies in the “axis of adults,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Or to keep Trump from filling those jobs with decidedly non-kindred spirits, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. (Pompeo has proved far more adult than expected; Bolton has not.) In fact, some of Mattis’s signal behind-the-scenes victories were against not Trump loyalists but against McMaster: reportedly refusing, for example, NSC requests to see the Pentagon’s war plans against North Korea and Iran.

Policy-wise, there were two epic failures: inability to persuade Trump to stay in either the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris accords on climate change. There are legitimate arguments in favor of Trump’s decisions on both, particularly the former, but Mattis publically broke with Trump on both and got cut off at the knees.

Last spring he urged Trump in vain to get congressional permission for missile strikes on Syrian military sites after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own civilians. (On this one, I have to say, I sided with Trump.) More recently, in order to be in sync with his boss, Mattis did about-faces on a new Space Force and a trillion-dollar modernization of the military’s strategic nuclear arsenal. And don’t forget the suspension of military exercises with South Korea – something Mattis reportedly had no clue Trump would put on the table in his tete-a-tete with crazy-like-a-hedgehog North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un.

In sum, Mattis has a mixed record at best. So perhaps the best way to determine Mattis’s continuing value is to look at what’s likely to happen if he departs.

One saving grace here is actually the Pentagon’s greatest flaw: It moves like molasses, and always in the same direction. Even if Trump were to appoint a new defense secretary who shares his foreign-policy vision, whatever that may be, and even if the president managed to win a second term, it’s unlikely they could do much long-term damage to the institution. The senior brass can always wait a president out. They know that it’s Congress, not the White House, that pays the military’s bills.

Trump is commander in chief, of course. He could change the terms of the U.S. engagement in Syria, for instance – but it’s highly doubtful he would. Trump could well turn tail in Afghanistan; if so, that would simply be making good on something Barack Obama failed deliver. Besides, is anybody truly optimistic that a continued U.S. presence will bring about political reconciliation with the Taliban? These are religious fanatics who consider kite-flying a subversive act.

Trump has clearly taken his own paths on North Korea and Iran. He would probably do the same on Russia, if Congress (and Bolton, to his credit) weren’t so intent on holding Vladimir Putin’s feet to the fire. Despite Trump’s dissing of European leaders, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s silly call for a European army, the trans-Atlantic alliance remains strong, NATO continues to expand, and U.S. military spending on the Continent’s defense has more than quadrupled since inauguration day.

Finally, in terms of the America’s true long-term rival -- China -- Trump is hardly being a pushover, between his trade war and the U.S. military’s increasing shows of naval strength in the western Pacific. His fawning over Xi Jinping, as with Putin, is a global disgrace, but it has been belied by American actions on the ground (and on the water).

So Trump will be Trump, regardless of who is leading the Pentagon. Exactly as he has with Mattis in that role. My point here is not to denigrate Mattis’s service, or to say that we’d be better off without him -- especially if we are blindsided by a major national-security emergency. But let’s keep some perspective on the “will he stay or go” guessing game: The true threat to the republic isn’t losing a steady hand at the Pentagon, but keeping an erratic one in the Oval Office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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