Tue, Dec 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Mattis’ exit takes leash off Trump’s ‘America first’ maxim, leaves no adults in the room

By Nick Wadhams  /  Bloomberg

For two years, the world counted on leaders such as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to hold firm against US President Donald Trump’s “America first” doctrine. Now that last line of defense is gone.

Mattis’ abrupt resignation as defense secretary and Trump’s rapid-fire moves to reshape the US military footprint abroad are provoking fears that there is no one left to restrain Trump’s most combative and isolationist impulses.

Already the floodgates are opening.

US forces in Syria will be rapidly withdrawn — the very issue that provoked Mattis’ resignation — as Trump declares victory over the Islamic State (IS) group. US troop levels in Afghanistan are to be slashed in half even as peace talks founder. Both decisions signal Trump’s willingness to leave key allies on the battlefield.

In a Washington that had grown accustomed to White House chaos, the developments this week forced even Trump’s most reliable allies to question his thinking.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — usually loathe to criticize Trump — said he was “distressed” over the departure of Mattis, who he said had a “clear-eyed understanding of our friends and foes.”

“It is regrettable that the president must now choose a new secretary of defense,” McConnell said. “But I urge him to select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’ understanding of these vital principles.”

US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was on Friday last week strikingly effusive in praising Mattis, calling him a “national treasure” who will be “sorely missed.”

“His leadership of our military won the admiration of our allies and adversaries,” he said in a statement.

The news heightened the sense of tumult in Washington, already consumed by a partial government shutdown egged on by Trump’s insistence that the US Congress meet his demands for border wall funding. It followed the departure or planned departures of several other key Trump aides, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and former US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

None of those moves fell with the force of Mattis’ decision — first announced in a Trump tweet and soon after in a letter released to the public. The 68-year-old former Marine general’s decision appeared to mark the death knell for the hope that a small group of “adults in the room” — of whom Mattis was the last — could dissuade Trump from his most impulsive and potentially disastrous decisions on the world stage.

“Mattis was the administration’s last representative of the traditional American view of its strategic role,” Australia National University strategic studies professor Hugh White said. “It will mean more erratic decisionmaking.”

Those effects could be felt on a series of key foreign policy decisions Trump has to make in the early months of next year, including whether to quit a Cold War-era nuclear treaty with Russia, end waivers that let allies keep buying Iranian oil and determine whether to add Venezuela to a list of state sponsors of terror.

Inside the White House, some aides close to the president said they felt unsettled by Mattis’ departure and expressed concern that it could affect foreign leaders’ perceptions of the administration’s stability.

That extended to the US Congress, where key lawmakers were already deep in a fight with the Trump over a possible government shutdown this weekend.

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