Officials said Mr. Mattis went to the White House with his resignation letter already written, but nonetheless made a last attempt at persuading the president to reverse his decision about Syria, which Mr. Trump announced on Wednesday over the objections of his senior advisers. Mr. Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, was rebuffed. Returning to the Pentagon, he asked aides to print out 50 copies of his resignation letter and distribute them around the building. (Jim Mattis, Defense Secretary, Resigns in Rebuke of Trump’s Worldview).The influential press outlets in the United States and elsewhere produced the expected commentary/coverage of the event (e.g., here, here, and here). They delight in taking the position that the General's resignation was a rebuke both to the President and to his policies (e.g., here, here). And it ties in nicely with the cult of personality that Mr. Trump's opponents have managed to build around the President (e.g., here, and here).
A careful reading of the resignation letter suggests otherwise, at least in part. It is not unlikely that the resignation was a personal rebuke of Mr. Trump, the man. But it is less clear that the resignation was a rebuke of policy. Indeed, General Mattis' resignation letter suggests otherwise. It appears more a principled defense of Mr. Trump's America First Initiative (against its betrayal by the President himself). Tied to that defense is an endorsement of the National Security Strategy of the US with which the America First Initiative is conjoined (here). This becomes clearer when one considers Mr. Mattis' resignation letter alongside his remarks at the U.S. Naval War College Commencement, Newport, Rhode Island 15 June 2018, both of which follow below along with brief reflections.
For the first time since World War II, Russia has been the nation that has redrawn international borders by force of arms in Georgia and Ukraine, while pursuing veto authority over their neighbors' diplomatic, economic and security decisions. Putin seeks to shatter NATO. He aims to diminish the appeal of the Western democratic model and attempts to undermine America's moral authority. His actions are designed not to challenge our arms, at this point, but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals.
political will, and that is a potential rivalry, with China harboring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order. The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing; espousing One Belt, One Road, when this diverse world has many belts and many roads; and attempting to replicate on the international stage their authoritarian domestic model, militarizing South China Sea features while using predatory economics of piling massive debt on others. (Ibid).
In response to these competitive challenges of urgency, power and will, this last January, our Department of Defense released its first National Defense Strategy in over a decade, and this filled a vacuum, one of strategy-free actions. To protect America's experiment in democracy, our National Defense Strategy has three lines of effort.(Ibid.).
Resignation Letter (reproduced in James Mattis’s Letter of Resignation 20 Dec. 201, The Atlantic)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.
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 US global influence.
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.
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.
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.
Because you have the right to 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.
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.
James N. Mattis
Remarks By Secretary Mattis at the U.S. Naval War College Commencement, Newport, Rhode Island 15 June 2018
Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Thank you, Admiral Harley, distinguished guests, those of you who took time to attend today. You're most welcome here. A very significant day, I would say, for our forces and for those of our allies and our partners, on this beautiful, sunny, picture-perfect day.
I say that with no tongue in cheek, since any day outside Washington, D.C. is sunny for me.
I believe it --
-- it probably adds seven years to my life to be with you today.
But -- and, for you mothers there who have got young ones who are yelling out a little bit, please stay in your seats. Whatever your little ones say can only add to the intellectual content of my remarks. (Laughter.)
So no problem at all. Those little ones are a reminder of why we do what we do here at the Naval War College. And I would also tell you --
Yeah. They really are, aren't they?
But congratulations to all of you graduates on your achievements here today, and to the families that stood by you as you burned the midnight oil here, in a school known for its intellectual rigor.
I would tell you that, having tried unsuccessfully several times in my career to make the cut to attend one of the schools, I felt, to say the least, a little bit humbled when I got the invitation, and surprised.
I attribute that to the professional courtesy of your -- of your president here, because I owe him a lot, and, in the naval service, we do not forget the debt that we owe to our shipmates. So thank you, Admiral, for inviting me up here. You helped to get me out of every jam that I got us into. (Laughter.)
But it is an honor to be with you because I couldn't make the cut, so, obviously, I come here with a certain amount of envy of those of you who got the benefit of this great education up here.
And I would just tell you that we expect that, if you turn to a fresh page in your lives, that you're at the top of your mental, physical and spiritual game.
You've had a year to refresh, to learn from each other and a superb faculty. And I think your education will continue even after you leave here, along the lines of what we just hear our chaplain pray for: that we continue to go forward and meet these challenges that surely await us.
Admiral Stephen Luce, when he founded the college on this rocky shore so many years ago -- I think it was about 134 years ago -- he wanted a lighthouse for leaders, a lighthouse where they could exchange ideas and broaden their perspectives and thus illuminate the path ahead for generations to come.
And we saw it start immediately, certainly with then (kept ?) and Alfred Thayer Mahan's lectures on sea-power that served as the foundation for maritime strategy and shaping naval thought for decades and decades to come.
Captain Charles Stockton -- he came here. He added to that legacy when he developed the first code for international law for naval operations, which became the basis for our modern law of naval warfare and, certainly, when we saw this campus exercise its intellectual prowess, helping to develop the Rainbow Plans of the 1930s and preparing its students for the challenges to come.
That's what you get when you testify too often in front of Congress, by the way. (Laughter.)
But, in the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz -- he said nothing he encountered in the Pacific during the war was either strange or unexpected, for this campus had prepared him well. I'm very confident -- thank you very much. (Laughter.)
If this was vodka, it would be a lot better speech. (Laughter.)
But I'm not supposed to glamorize alcohol anymore, so, young folks, you ignore what I just said. (Laughter.)
I am confident that you're going to carry forward that legacy of what those officers found here or brought to this school as you take your intellectual firepower forward and tackle the security problems of our time, because we are witnessing a world awash in change, as former Secretary of State George Schultz described it, a world beset by the reemergence of great power competition.
And we define the categories of challenges in the following way: urgency and power and will -- political will.
First, on urgency, we see it epitomized by the North Korea situation, as well as by the threat from violent extremist organizations, two very, very different challenges that have our ongoing attention.
Certainly, President Trump's historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proves, and I quote here, "The past does not have to define the future," unquote.
But, while a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, we remain vigilant regarding pursuit of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world.
And, meanwhile, half a world away and despite our international coalition's significant success against ISIS' geographic caliphate, extremist organizations continue to sow hatred in the Mideast and murder innocents around the world, from Europe and Africa, to south Asia and the Sulu Sea.
It is the urgency of this fight that compels us all to act decisively against terrorism, denying terrorists the safe haven they seek. And we carry out this counterterrorism campaign by, with and through our allies and partners, with over 70 nations united the -- in the Defeat ISIS campaign, and 41 nations united under NATO's flag to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan.
The second category of competition is military power, and we see the Russian Federation as the nation closest to us in nuclear parity, and proven willing to use conventional and irregular power in violation of international norms.
For the first time since World War II, Russia has been the nation that has redrawn international borders by force of arms in Georgia and Ukraine, while pursuing veto authority over their neighbors' diplomatic, economic and security decisions.
Putin seeks to shatter NATO. He aims to diminish the appeal of the Western democratic model and attempts to undermine America's moral authority. His actions are designed not to challenge our arms, at this point, but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals.
The third category is that of political will, and that is a potential rivalry, with China harboring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order.
The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing; espousing One Belt, One Road, when this diverse world has many belts and many roads; and attempting to replicate on the international stage their authoritarian domestic model, militarizing South China Sea features while using predatory economics of piling massive debt on others.
After World War II, our Greatest Generation, in collaboration with our allies and partners, built the open international order that has benefited global prosperity. It's unrealistic to believe, today, that China will not seek to replicate its internal authoritarian model elsewhere, as it expands globally.
China has benefited enormously from the open international order, but it had no say in drafting it. Today, how we engage with China and how the Chinese choose to collaborate by it dictates to the world that it will provide the roadmap for our future relationship.
In response to these competitive challenges of urgency, power and will, this last January, our Department of Defense released its first National Defense Strategy in over a decade, and this filled a vacuum, one of strategy-free actions. To protect America's experiment in democracy, our National Defense Strategy has three lines of effort.
First, we are building a more lethal force. Our adversaries must know -- work with our diplomats and within the international order, for, if you threaten our experiment in democracy, it will be your longest and worst day.
Second, we are strengthening our military alliances and building new partnerships, for history is clear: nations with allies thrive. Every allied and partner-nation officer here today brings value.
The third line of effort is we are reforming and modernizing the Department of Defense for greater performance, accountability and affordability, ensuring that we earn the trust of Congress and the American people.
We have an obligation to spend wisely every tax dollar entrusted to us, while adapting our department to tomorrow's security challenges. And this is to preclude us from being dominant, yet irrelevant, because we didn't adapt in the tradition of the Naval War College in the interwar years.
In support of these lines of institution, lines -- excuse me, these lines of effort, this institution has embraced the ever-changing character of warfare, updating your curriculum to reflect the strategic environment of today and, more importantly, of tomorrow.
If we are to uphold a rules-based order for the international community, one beneficial to all, military leaders must embrace the ethos of a fighting admiral, as defined by William Toohey, describing an approach to warfighting in all domains.
"A fighting admiral is the ultimate embodiment of an adroit leader possessing an eagerness to close with the enemy, an unflappable ability to execute operations in the heat and confusion of battle, and the power to instill a fighting spirit in those under their command."
After the year here, we expect you to be at the top of your game mentally, physically and spiritually, and to work to maintain that standard throughout the rest of your career. You now have the credentials to measure up in the crucible of combat, and your character must do the rest.
Your education here has prepared you well to integrate Naval, joint and coalition campaigns across all domains: air, land, sea and, now, the contested warfighting domains of outer space and cyberspace.
We are counting on you graduates to live and breathe this fighting admiral ethos, regardless of your rank or position, branch of service or nationality.
Don't shy away from the hard problems and even tougher solutions by saying that something is above your pay grade. Your nations and services did not invest a precious year of the finest education possible for you to take a timid view of your leadership responsibility.
Keep your wits about you. Keep your grace under fire, your civility with subordinates, inspiring those you lead with humility and intellectual rigor in reconciling war's grim realities with your political leaders' aspirations.
As you take your next steps, put into action our line of effort of strengthening our alliances and partnerships using your initiative, remembering that not all the good ideas come from the nation with the most aircraft carriers.
Down in Washington, D.C., four statues stand in Lafayette Square, overlooking the White House, and they are there as reminder. These are statues of men who hailed from France, Poland and Prussia, and they came -- and I quote here from one of the monuments -- "to offer their swords to the American colonies, serving as fellow laborers in the cause for liberty during our Revolutionary War."
These four men -- Lafayette, Rochambeau, Kosciuszko and von Steuben, serve as reminders, just as this War College student body does today, that America does not stand alone. No single nation resolves security challenges in this world.
For all the times that I was privileged to fight for America, I never fought in a solely American formation as a U.S. Marine. And seldom, if ever, will you, in your future leadership roles -- shall find yourself carrying out your -- your mission without communication and collaboration across national lines, for your ability to build trust and harmony will be as critical to victory as your operational ability.
So, as you depart this year of study and newfound friends, remember: You are your nations' unconventional ambassadors, strengthening relationships in every interaction with allies and partners.
The War College has prepared you well for this endeavor, with 66 foreign nations, nearly 20 percent of the student body, represented here today.
So carry these relationships forward. Reinforce them while forging new ones, for, by knowing how to fight well together, you strengthen deterrence and help to hold on to peace for one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, as our diplomats work to solve problems.
In closing, I want to venture back to the college's earliest days, when Admiral Luce laid out his admittedly lofty expectations for this new institution.
He said, "If attendance here will serve to broaden an officer's views, extend his mental horizon on national and international questions and give him a just appreciation of the great variety and extent of the requirements of his profession, the college will not have existed in vain."
You graduates now must give proof that Admiral Luce's vision was not in vain, for you carry our hopes, you fine young graduates of many nations, for a better world. And I am confident that, thanks to Admiral Harley and his Newport team, you are primed to meet the many challenges that lie ahead.
Congratulations to all of you, and thank you again for allowing me to take part today. (Applause.)