Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned after President Donald Trump told him he would keep his promise to remove all U.S. troops from Syria. Mattis shouldn’t have been surprised, as Trump campaigned on that promise, and in March said "We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." He then put a hold on $200 million of Syria recovery funds. In April, Trump gave the Pentagon another six months, and on Thursday, eight months later, he pulled the plug.
Trump obviously didn’t know he was supposed to have “both a public and a private position” and, after telegraphing his punch for two years, he finally gave the order.
Impulsive? Not hardly.
Trump was never comfortable with America’s too-little, too-late intervention in Syria, a place Washington is not convinced is very important; we are really just there out of habit. The desultory commitment of 2,000 troops is just big enough to get in trouble, and too small to make a strategic difference. If the Pentagon thinks the “light footprint” model that worked in Afghanistan will work in Syria, a crowded battlespace hosting epic ruined cities, displaced persons, regime fighters, resistance fighters, troops from America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah, and a few other outfits on the DL, it is malpractice of the most serious sort.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey, on the other hand, are convinced Syria is vital so they are ready to do whatever it takes. Trump saw a third costly, endless entanglement staring us in the face and opted out. Like he said, “Let the other people take care of it now.”
The real question for Secretary Mattis is: did he know in April the military couldn’t do the job in six months? If so, why didn’t he admit it then so we could have saved a few billion dollars and some lives?
It’s not clear why Mattis volunteered to be Trump’s Secretary of Defense — we’ll have to wait for the book deal and speaking tour to learn that — but he was ill-equipped to serve a President who arrived at the White House uninterested in being beholden to the ways of the national security bureaucracy, "…the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump entered office without the retinue of advisors that follows most candidates, and the “Never Trump” foreign policy experts who safely protested his candidacy when he was a long shot against Hillary Clinton deprived the administration of experienced hands. Trump’s work style is non-traditional: At the Trump Organization, he dealt directly with the other bosses, like the Mayor of New York or the Chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, so why not the head guys of Turkey or Russia?
Trump built hotels and a casino — the men in that business pride themselves on knowing, to the day, years in advance, when the doors will open to paying customers. To them, “conditions based” is a luxury for people who don’t have to pay back investors, and a semi-annual update of those “conditions” is just a muddle, an exercise in goalpost shifting.
Surveying Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, Trump no doubt feels his executives in charge of the defense, diplomacy, and reconstruction subsidiaries have failed to deliver after two decades and unlimited funding. They’re not ready to go to market, so it’s time to liquidate some assets.
Thus, Mattis was faced with a boss who thinks in terms of schedules and deliverables, and return on investment (ROI), with an added obligation to keep his promises to the voters. Mattis’s instincts should have been at their most acute, but he failed to understand that Trump really was getting the U.S. out of Syria, because as he said of the “moderate” Syrian fighters “we have no idea who these people are.”
Are all flag officers fated for failure when working closely with a President? No, they are not. Many have successfully navigated politics at the highest level.
Fleet Admiral William Leahy served as FDR’s Chief of Staff; General of the Army George C. Marshall served as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under President Harry Truman; General Maxwell Taylor served as the Military Representative in the Kennedy White House before becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft served as the National Security Advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. None of these military leaders were yes-men, but they all had one critical skill: they knew how to disagree with the President of the United States and leave him happy they did so.
Mattis spent much of his time telling whoever would listen that he was at the Pentagon to protect it from the Commander-in-Chief, which is pedestrian Washington, D.C. image management, at odds with the selfless, soldier-scholar image he cultivated. Mattis the man is not the Mattis of myth.
Slow-rolling the President’s desires — such as creating the Space Force or banning transgender troops from the military — forced Trump to do what Obama did: make the critical national defense decisions in the West Wing. Not to worry, though: if the Pentagon follows @realDonaldTrump they’ll learn about them soon enough.
Mattis fell victim to the combination of the military compulsion that “the job is never done” and the national security bureaucracy’s reflex to oppose whatever Russia is doing, even if what it is doing will embroil it a quagmire like Syria.
In Syria it wasn’t just a case of a job left undone, but the inevitable mission creep. What started as a mission to defeat ISIS became a mission to expel Iranian influence from Syria, thinking that can only charitably be called hallucinatory, no matter how good those 2,000 troops are. The proponents of this idea, Mattis among them, forgot that Iran wants access to Syria more than we want them to leave and that Tehran will play dirty for as long as it takes, ergo Iran will win.
Trump’s decision to quit Syria will make Russia and Iran responsible for finishing off ISIS, which they will do with more brutal dispatch that the U.S. would have mustered — good for us. We’re off the hook for paying for Syria’s reconstruction, estimated to cost between $250 billion and $400 billion — also good for us. Jockeying by Iran and Russia, neither of whom can afford reconstruction, will cause tension between the “victors” — very good for us.
Turkey has said it will take over the fight against ISIS after the U.S. pullout, which may ease tensions between Washington and Ankara over U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. should ensure that Turkey gets the intelligence and airpower support it needs to not get crossways with Russian and Iranian forces (or maybe to do just that), and to demonstrate to Erdogan that Turkey’s real friend is NATO, and not Russia, China, or Iran.
Mattis did not understand, or did not want to understand, he was a political appointee, and that meant executing the policy of the elected officials. He never discerned that Trump is clearing the decks before the looming contest with China, ridding the U.S. of legacy conflicts like Syria where we won’t win, and Afghanistan where we’ve already lost.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).