Jim Mattis’ Resignation Was Just a Beginning. When the Commander in Chief Is ‘Unfit,’ What’s a General to Do?

This month it was reported that the White House plans to transform America’s alliances into a protection racket with a “cost plus 50” plan that would require allies to pay 150 percent of the cost of hosting U.S. troops, with a good behavior discount for those countries willing to take their marching orders from Washington, D.C.

…In light of the reported Trump plan to make America’s longtime allies pay what amounts to protection money, this is an important moment to revisit the resignation in protest last December of Defense Secretary James Mattis. It was a milestone in modern U.S. history that put in bold relief an avalanche of criticism from top national-security officials, all with a common theme: The commander in chief is unfit.

…In 280 characters or less, Trump had thus thrown U.S. strategy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia into disarray, with aftershocks quickly rumbling in capitals throughout the region and as far away as Moscow. 

There would be no careful preparation and planning for the U.S. military chain-of-command, no advance consultation with close U.S. allies whose security would be jeopardized, no strategy to inform the vast U.S. government bureaucracy and the multinational anti-ISIS coalition how best to respond to the change of missions and goals.

…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.

…Trump took Pentagon officials by surprise by tweeting out a ban on transgender people from serving in the military, a move which reportedly “appalled” a vacationing Mattis. In May of 2018, Trump rejected the advice of his generals and top national security aides in moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, essentially ending the United States’ venerable role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That same month Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal over the strong objections of close advisers and fellow signatories to the deal–including Great Britain, France and Germany.

At his summer 2018 summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump blindsided Pentagon leaders by cancelling military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces on the peninsula, a position top U.S. military officers have warned is dangerously eroding the readiness of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. After meeting privately with Kim, Trump even called the exercises “provocative” and “war games,” adopting the rhetoric of Pyongyang.

…Trump followed that summit with an extraordinary burst of disruptive diplomacy during a single week overseas in July 2018, during which he publicly upbraided close allies, threw a NATO Summit in Brussels into disarray, and shattered diplomatic protocol by criticizing his host British Prime Minister Theresa May while visiting Great Britain and cheerleading for “Brexit.”

Trump then traveled to Helsinki where, in a baffling performance, he met privately with Vladimir Putin, confiscated his interpreter’s notes after the meeting, and then publicly gave the Russian president’s denials of election interference equal weight to the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies. In a post-summit interview, Trump even suggested that the United States might be reluctant to come to the defense of new NATO ally Montenegro, whose “aggressive” people could start “World War III,” mouthing the talking points of Putin and casting doubt over NATO’s bedrock commitment of collective defense.

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns described watching Trump at the NATO and Helsinki Summits last summer as nothing less than “Orwellian.”
[emphasis: peanut gallery]

…Mattis instructed staff to distribute the resignation letter widely. Journalists and close Washington observers immediately recognized the letter for what it was–a damning critique of the commander-in-chief. After nearly two years on the job, the president who emerges clearly from Mattis’ carefully worded resignation is dismissive of the U.S. alliances that provide the sinew in America’s superpower reach, and is unable or unwilling to grasp the profound threat to U.S. interests and …international order posed by authoritarian regimes like Russia and China.

…“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,” Mattis concluded in his letter.

…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.

…“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.

….U.S. policy in the Middle East has …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 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 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.

…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.

…“We now have an impulsive and ill-informed president who routinely exhibits fantastical thinking on a host of major national security issues, surrounded by a lot of ‘acting’ cabinet officials who have never even been confirmed by the Senate, to include the acting Secretary of Defense, and senior aides who are beleaguered and frequently publicly humiliated by their boss,” said McCaffrey.

..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.

…”There is an elephant standing in America’s living room right now staring us in the face: the President of the United States may well be compromised by the Russians, which I truly believe is the case. And he is unfit to serve.”

Uniformed leaders know that the U.S. military’s position as far and away the most respected institution in America is founded on its nonpartisan status and ethos, and they see that tradition being steadily eroded by the commander-in-chief’s frequent attempts to expropriate the military as one more cudgel in hyper-partisan battles with his political opponents. Historically that is a step on the road to autocracy, wherein the military becomes loyal to the autocrat it serves rather than the Constitution and rule of law the U.S. military is pledged to defend.

…”Presidents wear many hats, and it is not unusual for them to use the military as a prop to burnish their image …but criticizing the political opposition at a visit with the troops–when the troops are forbidden by law to engage in politics–is a dangerous path to walk down.”

…When Trump broke with decades of tradition last summer and revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, a frequent critic, many senior intelligence and military officials saw it as further evidence that Trump was politicizing dissent in national security circles and abusing the powers of the presidency to stifle free speech. 

Whatever clarity the Mueller report provides may come at the cost of a constitutional crisis, however, with profoundly dangerous implications for the nation’s security. At a similar culminating moment in the Watergate investigation, for instance, then Defense Secretary James Schlesinger admitted to taking the extraordinary, extra-constitutional step of telling senior U.S. military leaders to ignore orders from an embattled and increasingly paranoid President Richard Nixon–including a potential nuclear launch order–unless Schlesinger had signed off on them first.

Jim Mattis’ Resignation Was Just a Beginning. When the Commander in Chief Is ‘Unfit,’ What’s a General to Do?

Anyone who is surprised by any of this wasn’t paying attention during the campaign.


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