In an extraordinary rebuke to President Trump, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis quit in a letter stating that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” and “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 letter is nothing more than a full rebuke of Trumpism, and the fact that a man who has been reported to never quit anything in his life quit working for Trump should scare us all.
But this is where it gets complicated. Mattis’ breaking point wasn’t bombing a school bus in Yemen or wasting millions by sending troops down to the border in a transparent, racist political stunt, but by decreasing our footprint in Syria. That said, it’s not as simple as a general getting mad he cannot continue to fight forever wars, as the Associated Press reported:
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies, and over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against the Islamic State, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.
Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two officials briefed on the matter said.
With Erdogan on the line, Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey and special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1 percent of its territory, the officials said.
In principle, Trump has a point. What are we doing in Syria? What’s our endgame there? There’s a lot of genuine questions to be asked about this war, but there is absolutely no way Trump that thinks about the nuance of the situation, and he simply wants to be able to tell people that he defeated ISIS. In practice, this looks to be disastrous. As the old saying goes, jumping out a window and walking out the front door are both ways to leave a building, and if we are to withdraw from Syria, it must be done deliberately out the front door, not out the window with Trumpian compulsiveness.
The best answer to “what are we doing in Syria?” is “supporting our Kurdish allies.” They have been some of America’s best allies for decades, and yet we treat them like crap, and this hasty withdrawal is effectively signing their death warrant. Per The Washington Post:
In the Syrian town of Kobane, where the United States’ alliance with Syria’s Kurds began in 2014, thousands of Kurds marched in anger and dismay toward a U.S. military base, many clutching photographs of their children killed fighting the Islamic State alongside U.S. forces. They urged Trump to reverse his decision.
“She died beside Americans, and now that you are leaving, I will also die,” shouted a mother holding up the photograph of her dead daughter, who had served in a women’s unit of the main Kurdish militia, according to witnesses.
Now, Russia is the elephant in the room, as their only Middle East base is stationed in Syria, and it’s an unimpeachable fact that Vladimir Putin is elated about this decision. Trump is trying to spin this as something Putin doesn’t want, but that’s simply an outright lie, and one cannot help but wonder if Trump’s endless business ventures in Moscow have to do with this move. Trump has supported Putin’s foreign policy before and he’s doing it again. That said, it’s not so simple as to say “Trump is doing this because Putin.” The man is desperate to be loved and ending foreign entanglements has become popular in the wake of our disaster in Iraq becoming obvious to everyone with a semi-functioning brain (a Gallup poll from 2017 shows support for Syrian airstrikes lower than any other war we have waged since 1983).
Syria is perhaps the most complicated place in the world. It’s run by a genocidal regime that is financially supported by Iran and is effectively being lent Russia’s air force, who are all battling a vast collection of tribal leaders. The Kurds have taken the lead in fighting back against this coalition, but they are also facing danger from Turkey, who regards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization. There is no right answer in Syria, but we can be certain that abandoning our allies at the drop of the hat and with no plan to ensure their safety will have disastrous consequences.
If you are a local militia fighting against a murderous regime, why would you work with the United States? We haven’t “won” a war since World War II, and Trump has proven that we are one election away from abandoning all of our commitments. As Mattis said, our allies are a source of strength, and an abrupt move like this is certain to reduce our strength on that front. Given the events of the last two years, you’d be a fool to trust your life to this government. That will have far-reaching consequences and will likely continue our forever wars where we will be forced to go it alone far more often now.
Speaking of forever wars, the longest in American history also looks to be drawing down. I have been waiting over half of my 32 year life to end the war in Afghanistan, and I am deeply conflicted about Trump’s decision to call 7,000 troops home from a war that James Mattis said “I don’t know how long it’s going to take” in reference to handing control of the country back to the Afghans after 17 years of endless war. On the one hand, bringing American troops home from a war where no one can fully articulate the mission is an unimpeachably good thing, on the other hand, the window/front door analogy applies here too.
One thing is for certain, we have failed in Afghanistan, Iraq and all other arenas considered to be a part of the War on Terror.
This is where I become less sympathetic to James Mattis. His position on Syria is fully understandable. Comparatively speaking, we have a small footprint there, some of our most staunch allies rely on our support, and abandoning them at the drop of the heat is sure to lead to their deaths and destroy any credibility America has left when it comes to serving allies' interests. With Afghanistan, we are simply muddling along with 14,000 Americans in harms way. For what? Literally no one can articulate the mission there anymore.
These kinds of forever wars are typically features of decision-making by generals like Mattis, not bugs, as United States Army Veteran Joe Quinn wrote in the New York Times:
In Afghanistan, after an Afghan police officer demanded money from me at gunpoint to get through a checkpoint, I learned of the Kabul government's widespread corruption. I learned that spending $68 billion on Afghan forces doesn't buy the essential ingredients of a fighting force: loyalty, courage and integrity. I learned that most generals would always ask for more money, more troops, more time — and more war. It's like asking Tom Brady what he wants to do on Sunday.
I learned that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For the past 17 years in Afghanistan, we've tried everything: a light footprint, a big footprint, conventional war, counterinsurgency, counter-corruption, surges, drawdowns.
Ending forever wars is an unimpeachably good thing, but simply saying “we’re leaving” with no other plan can easily make things worse. A competent, peace-driven president ordering this drawdown would be ideal, and it’s not inconceivable that this Trump withdrawal could make things infinitely worse than they are now. Mattis’ resignation letter clearly highlighted that his departure is due to an accumulation of disagreements, but that the drawdown in Syria served as his breaking point proves Joe Quinn’s editorial right—generals like Mattis are one of the main reasons we find ourselves in the current mess. That Donald Trump can see how disastrous our forever wars in Afghanistan and Syria are isn’t an indictment of our idiot president, but of the abject failure of the War on Terror.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.