James Mattis Resigns

Brian Gongol

"Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save", says Psalm 146.

While the Bible isn't usually a guide to civics, this particular advice is relevant in the secular sense as well as the spiritual. A healthy system of government depends not on the individuals in it, but rather on the commitment to rules shared by authorities and civilians alike.

But when the "prince" (or in our case, the President) puts his faith only in himself, then it is hard to put our trust in anything other than the individuals who make decisions around him. And we are now scheduled to lose one of the most important of those individuals in a matter of weeks.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has been leading America's military since President Trump took office, and by most accounts, he has done so with discipline and integrity. He hasn't been perfect -- thoughtful people like Kori Schake (who once co-edited a book with Mattis) have criticized him for remaining quiet on defense-related public issues at times when his voice may have had a meaningful effect.

But by and large, Secretary Mattis is known rightly as a bold and intelligent leader who stands on principle. And it appears his principles have been crossed for the last time. What the President has spun as a "retirement" sounds distinctly like an uninvited resignation. There seems little room for doubt that Mattis's resignation letter has been sitting at the ready in his desk drawer since Day One, and that the President's feckless and impulsive decision to abandon any allied efforts to bring peace to Syria was the final straw for the Secretary.

In Mattis, the world's greatest military has been under the direct supervision of the "Warrior Monk": A man known for his relentless intellectual curiosity and devotion to warfighting as a profession distinguished by rules and a code of honor. Though the Secretary of Defense is a political appointee, it is far more important for the officeholder to possess the right mental framework for the job than to espouse the right opinions on any particular current issues. Mattis came to the role just a few years after he retired as a Marine General. In an essay written during his time as a commanding general, he said:

"The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience) -- that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences -- generally a better way to do business -- especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men."

In a neat and concise way, Mattis's words are a call to leaders throughout the military chain of command -- right up to the Commander-in-Chief -- to be curious, competent, and (most crucially) humble. So, wherever he may fall precisely within the spectrum of American political opinion, he most brought to the job a sense of intellectual rigor and professional responsibility that aligns well with the gravity of the office. He reiterated often the central importance of America's alliances and spoke openly about our responsibilities at least as often as our strengths. Even in resignation, Secretary Mattis remains resolute:

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.

He is right. And, in February, he will be gone.

Unfortunately, the only reason the President seems ever to have listened to his counsel was because Mattis was a retired general. (In fact, the President continues to refer to him as "General Mattis", even though "Secretary" is the appropriate title.) But even that seems not to have been enough to persuade the President to take Mattis's advice on matters so important that they triggered a resignation. That is truly ominous. If nothing about the Secretary's perspective and approach rubbed off on the President, then the orientation of the world's mightiest fighting power may lurch in the direction of whatever personality fills the job next.

With whom will the President replace him? Will his successor have the same roots, not only in military strategy but in self-discipline and intellectual rigor? When faced with the task of serving a President who trusts his gut instincts more than he trusts the counsel of outsiders, will the next Secretary of Defense have the necessary stiffness of spine to put the interests of the country before those of the Chief Executive? Will the successor have a resignation letter drafted and ready on Day One, to be signed and submitted the moment a line is crossed? Will the President nominate someone of the right background and temperament -- and will he listen to what the next Defense Secretary says?

Or will the President look for someone whose primary attribute is the personal loyalty he so craves?

President Trump was hired for his own job in part because many voters trusted him when he said he would hire "the best people". And by most accounts, that's what he got in James Mattis.

But President Trump never warned us he'd be so terrible at keeping "the best people" around.