James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, exits after a news conference following the inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue meeting with Rex Tillerson, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Mattis’s Exit Takes Leash Off Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine

(Bloomberg) -- For two years, the world counted on leaders like Jim Mattis to hold firm against President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine. Now that last line of defense is gone.

Mattis’s abrupt resignation as defense secretary and Trump’s rapid-fire moves to reshape the U.S. military footprint abroad are provoking fears that there’s no one left to restrain the president’s most combative and isolationist impulses.

Mattis’s Exit Takes Leash Off Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine

Already the floodgates are opening.

U.S. forces in Syria will be rapidly withdrawn -- the very issue that provoked Mattis’s resignation -- as the president declares victory over Islamic State. American troop levels in Afghanistan will be slashed in half even as peace talks founder. Both decisions signal Trump’s willingness to leave key allies on the battlefield.

In a Washington that had grown accustomed to White House chaos, the developments this week forced even Trump’s most reliable allies to question his thinking. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- usually loath to criticize the president -- said he was “distressed” over the departure of Mattis, who he said had a “clear-eyed understanding of our friends and foes.”

‘Vital Principles’

“It is regrettable that the president must now choose a new Secretary of Defense,” McConnell said. “But I urge him to select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding of these vital principles.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was strikingly effusive in praising Mattis on Friday, calling him a “national treasure” who will be “sorely missed.” He said in a statement that “his leadership of our military won the admiration of our allies and adversaries.”

The news heightened the sense of tumult in Washington, already consumed by the prospect of a partial government shutdown egged on by Trump’s insistence that Congress meet his demands for border wall funding. And it followed the departure or planned departures of several other key Trump aides, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, United Nations envoy Nikki Haley and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

None of those moves fell with the force of Mattis’s decision -- first announced in a presidential tweet and soon after in a letter released to the public. The 68-year-old former Marine general’s decision appeared to mark the death knell for the hope that a small group of “adults in the room” -- of whom Mattis was the last -- could dissuade Trump from his most impulsive and potentially disastrous decisions on the world stage.

‘Last Representative’

“Mattis was the administration’s last representative of the traditional American view of its strategic role,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australia National University. “It will mean more erratic decision-making.”

That impact could be felt on a series of key foreign policy decisions Trump has to make in the early months of 2019, including whether to quit a Cold War-era nuclear treaty with Russia, end waivers that let allies keep buying Iranian oil and determine whether to add Venezuela to a list of state sponsors of terror.

Inside the White House, some aides close to the president said they felt unsettled by Mattis’s departure and expressed concern that it could affect foreign leaders’ perceptions of the administration’s stability.

That extended to Capitol Hill, where key lawmakers were already deep in a fight with the president over a possible government shutdown this weekend.

“This is scary,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a tweet late Thursday. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”

Fundamental Change

Mattis’s exit may augur a fundamental change in the way adversaries and allies approach the administration, a trend that’s already visible with North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s regime has all but shut out Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and his chief envoy, Steve Biegun, instead looking to deal with the president himself, knowing he is the ultimate authority.

“Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria without consulting his national security team will reinforce North Korea’s inclination to only deal with Trump,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in a tweet. “Trump has set up a dangerous dynamic that undercuts attempts to conduct real diplomacy.”

In a blistering two-page letter to the president, Mattis laid out his convictions on the value of U.S. leadership in strategic alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the 74-nation coalition to defeat Islamic State. His letter also suggested differences with Trump over the president’s handling of strategic challenges posed by Russia and China.

White House Reaction

“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis said in the letter to Trump released by the Pentagon.

White House officials publicly played down the idea that Mattis’s departure betrayed serious problems plaguing the administration.

Senior adviser Stephen Miller denounced the media’s “hysterical reaction” during an interview with CNN. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders chided the focus on “palace intrigue” during an appearance on the Fox Business Network.

The question now is who is left to replace Mattis, and who would serve a president who seems so willing to disregard the recommendations of his advisers. Trump’s hope is to name a replacement for Mattis by the end of the year, Sanders said Thursday.

Potential Successors

Possible successors include Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, retired General Jack Keane, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Missouri Senator Jim Talent.

A veteran of two Army combat tours and a Bronze Star recipient, Cotton has earned a reputation as a national security hawk who boldly challenged then-President Barack Obama, particularly on the Iran nuclear arms deal and in arguing for an expansion of government surveillance authority.

Keane is a former Army vice chief of staff who makes regular appearances on Fox News, Trump’s preferred media outlet.

Graham, a retired Air Force lawyer, has served as an informal counselor to president. He advocates what he calls “security through strength," including an aggressive posture against Islamic State terrorists.

Talent, who was viewed as in the running for defense secretary before Trump chose Mattis, has broad foreign policy experience, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing Co. executive, also may draw attention as potential successor to his current boss Mattis.

But Republican Senator Marco Rubio encapsulated many observers’ fears about the road ahead. Writing on Twitter, Rubio said Mattis’s resignation letter “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.