Commentary: Last man standing Jim Mattis exits Trump's 'axis of adults'

Commentary: Last man standing Jim Mattis exits Trump's 'axis of adults'

Military figures obey orders, and do not resign in US politics, but Defence Secretary Jim Mattis is unlike others, says Financial Times' Edward Luce.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defence Mattis gives a news conference after a NATO defence ministers
Then US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis gives a news conference after a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Jun 29, 2017. (File Photo: Reuters/Eric Vidal)

LONDON: And then there were none. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Jim Mattis, the outgoing US secretary for defence, was the last grown-up in Donald Trump’s “axis of adults”. 

Around the world, America’s allies and adversaries alike have treated Mr Mattis as their comfort blanket. No matter how impulsive his commander-in-chief might be, Mr Mattis was there to curb his instincts. 

For the past two years he has tirelessly toured the world to reassure America’s partners that nothing has fundamentally changed. Sometimes they believed him. Now he is leaving. 

He will join an august - and not so august - roll call of serving and former generals and diplomats who surrounded Mr Trump at the start of his administration.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump and U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis attend the 119th U.S. Army-Navy
US President Donald Trump and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis attend the 119th Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Dec 8, 2018. (File Photo: Reuters/Jim Young)

'MAD DOG' MATTIS

From the outset Mr Mattis was seen as the indispensable one. Almost alone among Mr Trump’s cabinet principals, he declined to offer effusive praise in public for his president - and was widely known to have spoken home truths to Mr Trump in private.

In the first year, Mr Trump generally took his advice. But for Mr Mattis, Mr Trump would have been even more dismissive of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He would also probably have cancelled US-South Korea military exercises, pulled the US out of Afghanistan and announced the American withdrawal from Syria far sooner. 

READ: Why US Defence Secretary James Mattis is America's 2017 person of the year, a commentary

Mr Trump initially loved the former marine general’s mien: He described “Mad Dog” Mattis as straight from central casting. The problem was that Mr Mattis did not live up to his name. Whenever Mr Trump had a madcap idea, his defence secretary was there to blunt it.

It would be wrong to view his exit on a par with the others. It is far more serious. 

Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, was fired. HR McMaster, the former national security adviser, was, at best, constructively dismissed. And General John Kelly, the outgoing White House chief of staff, was at loggerheads with his undisciplined president from day one. 

READ: Even in Donald Trump’s White House, chaos has its limits, a commentary

The world drew far less reassurance from their presence than they did from that of Mr Mattis. His resignation is as shocking as it is unsurprising. 

THE FINAL STRAW

Military figures do not resign. The only parallel would have been if former general Colin Powell had quit as George W Bush’s chief diplomat in the build-up to the Iraq war. He did not.

Military men obey orders. If their advice is spurned, they knuckle down. 

Mr Mattis swallowed that for almost two years. His friends believe he should have quit in October when Mr Trump ordered military personnel to defend the US-Mexico border from an alleged invasion of central American refugees. 

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security  Nielsen tour Bas
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen tour Base Camp Donna in Texas, Nov 14, 2018. (File Photo: Reuters/Phil Stewart)

For the first time, Mr Mattis was heavily criticised when he meekly agreed to follow that order. The move, which was classic Trumpian theatre ahead of the midterm elections, crossed a civil-military line. 

But the final straw was Mr Trump’s tweet on Wednesday on the US pullout from Syria. It went against the urgent advice of Mr Mattis - and almost all others. 

Moreover, Mr Trump’s premise of having defeated IS was belied by the facts. In some parts of Syria, and the broader Middle East, the terrorist group is resurgent.

What happens now? Regardless of who replaces Mr Mattis, the world has lost a critical lifeline - much like that popular game show I used to watch. 

It can still phone plenty of friends, all of whom will sympathise. It can also ask the audience (ditto). But it knows that military men do not resign in US politics. 

That Mr Mattis could no longer stomach his job marks a watershed for an administration that is rapidly losing whatever shreds of credibility it had.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. 

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)

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