Jim Mattis’ resignation letter: clear, but not straightforward

Very soon after Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the US troops now in Syria and many of those in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis resigned. Let’s read between the lines in his resignation letter.

Resignation letters in the Trump administration tend to be short and uncontroversial. If you’re not leaving because you got fired, you thank everyone for their service and get off the stage. The timing of the Mattis resignation is significant — Trump’s decision to ignore his advisors and cabinet members and just announce the troop withdrawals certainly made Mattis feel he could no longer trust his commander-in-chief.

The result is a letter that’s meaty and clear. But what is says is not the same as what it means.

Here’s the letter and my translation:

Dear Mr. President:

I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.

Translation: This was the pinnacle of my military career.

I am proud of the progress that has been made over the past two years on some of the key goals articulated in our National Defense Strategy: putting the Department on a more sound budgetary footing, improving readiness and lethality in our forces, and reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance. Our troops continue to provide the capabilities needed to prevail in conflict and sustain strong U.S. global influence.

Translation: Thanks for the extra cash. Making troops fast and lethal allows the military to be the global instrument of US strategy. I helped us do that.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Translation: We’re not the only country in the world. The way we get stuff done is with coalitions like NATO.

Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

Translation: China and Russia are our enemies.

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. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Translation: Firm defense and working with other countries are both essential. I know, I’ve been in the military since 1969.

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. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019, a date that should allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed as well as to make sure the Department’s interests are properly articulated and protected at upcoming events to include Congressional posture hearings and the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in February. Further, that a full transition to a new Secretary of Defense occurs well in advance of the transition of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September in order to ensure stability within the Department.

Translation: You’ve stopped listening and your approach is nuts, so I’m giving my two months notice.

I pledge my full effort to a smooth transition that ensures the needs and interests of the 2.15 million Service Members and 732,079 DoD civilians receive undistracted attention of the Department at all times so that they can fulfill their critical, round-the-clock mission to protect the American people.

I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.

Jim N. Mattis

Translation: I’ll keep working hard until the last day because all these people depend on me.

Friendless and defenseless

There are many themes of the Trump presidency. One of the most visible now is this: we turn our friends into enemies.

Mattis resigned because of this. His goal was to defend us against actual enemies, like Russia, China, ISIS, and North Korea. He wanted to do this together with friendly countries. Trump didn’t.

Trump’s own “friends” in the administration are now leaving, too.

The five most important people in any president’s administration are the Chief of Staff, the Attorney General, and the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. Historically, the actions of these five people determine the effectiveness of the president in foreign and domestic affairs.

Donald Trump has now fired or forced out two chiefs of staff, his Attorney General, and his secretaries of State and Defense. Only Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin remains.

Imagine for a moment that you had turned all your friends against you. How would you feel? How would you survive?

If this doesn’t scare the crap out of you, you’re not paying attention.

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  1. I could be wrong, but Putin probably figures that 45 will be out pretty soon. He might as well cash in his chips now. I cannot think of another explanation for these moves and not telling anyone in advance.

  2. Finally someone from Trump’s administration has resoundingly quit. No hint of praise for the Orange Menace, but a clear, only slightly veiled explanation of Trump’s mad decisions.

    Phil’s guess is likely correct. The situation shows that Putin (and much of the world) is a better poker player than
    Trump. We continue to allow this madman to occupy the pinnacle of American power at our very great peril. Are you listening, Republican Party?? The Democratic House majority can slow or stymie many Trump moves in 2019 but only the GOP (or a revolution) can remove hm from power.