Why Mattis’ exit is a defining moment in US foreign policy


(“We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Donald Trump, Jan 2017) 

Within the week, President Trump’s sudden announcement of “total” troop withdrawal from Syria has ripped apart the American political system and exposed its fault lines. Trump’s decision is intrinsically a sound one. He didn’t start the Syrian conflict and he has been on record repeatedly that the US had no business to intervene in it militarily. But his writ as president and commander-in-chief didn’t run large. Astoundingly enough, we know now that the Pentagon defied the president who is also the commander-in-chief.

We also know that Trump’s defence secretary James Mattis set the scale and scope of the US intervention in Syria. From what was meant to be a limited intervention, Mattis turned it into an open-ended military occupation of Syria. This was despite the fact that the US carries no UN mandate to send forces to Syria. The repeated protests by Damascus, including at the UN, were ignored.

Indeed, the military mission that was originally geared to fight the ISIS morphed into a geopolitical one to counter Iran (and Russia’s) presence in Syria. Above all, the US military virtually occupied one-third of Syrian territory and declared it an exclusive region that even Syrian government forces were barred from entering and imposed a “no-fly zone” there. All this constituted a gross violation of international law and UN Charter.

While resigning in protest, Mattis took care to turn it into a first-rate political scandal. This has put Trump’s back up. If Mattis was hoping to keep his job till end-February with an intention to continue to undermine the president’s foreign policies, an unforgiving Trump has other plans. Trump has announced the appointment of an acting defence secretary w.e.f. Jan 1, which defangs Mattis overnight. Trump thereby ensures that his decision on troop withdrawal in Syria will be implemented on the ground.

The really stunning part is that the bulk of America’s political class, think tanks and the media have rallied to support Mattis in an astounding display of defiance and spite toward their elected president. Suffice to say, there has been an insurrection against Trump’s foreign policy agenda and Mattis was a key figure in that enterprise. Quintessentially, the established American political system – what Trump calls the “Swamp” – refuses to make way for the elected president, his mandate from the people for his political platform notwithstanding. Isn’t it a sham that the US claims to have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”?

Quite obviously, Syria is only the tip of the iceberg. Looking back, Mattis had a virtual free run through the past two-year period, to undermine Trump’s foreign policy agenda across the board. Mattis had the great advantage of serving at NATO Headquarters as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. His president, on the other hand, was a novice in alliance politics. Mattis knew precisely how consensus opinion is forged in Brussels around decisions taken in Washington, how those decisions get formally adopted by alliance partners and how Washington’s projects invariably get implemented. Thus, Trump’s role got incrementally reduced to ranting and raving about the NATO budget. Trump talks no longer about NATO being “obsolete”.

Simply put, Mattis has brilliantly revived the NATO. He did this knowing fully well that a transatlantic alliance raring to go cannot do without an “enemy”. And Mattis also knew that that “enemy” has to be Russia. Thus, the reboot of NATO and the ratcheting up of tensions with Russia became mutually reinforcing endeavors. The result is plain to see: NATO has come closer to Russia’s borders than at anytime before and is creating threatening military infrastructure there. Moscow is in a quandary because it is well aware that the NATO project is a de facto Pentagon project and Trump himself probably had little to do with it.

Moscow keeps hoping that a Russian-American summit would help matters, but then, Trump’s plans for meeting with Vladimir Putin runs into strong headwinds whenever the idea surfaces. The “Russia collusion” inquiry keeps Trump off balance (although Robert Mueller has so far failed to produce a shred of evidence that Moscow promoted Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election.) Put differently, for the “Swamp” the Robert Mueller inquiry becomes critically important precisely for the reason that Trump is prevented from making any concerted attempt to improve US-Russia relations.

Syria and Afghanistan are only illustrative examples of how the Pentagon has a corporate interest in fighting open-ended wars. In both cases, a military victory is no longer regarded as feasible, and it is the hidden geopolitical agenda that matters to the Pentagon. Equally, cascading tensions with Russia or the open-ended wars translate as bigger budgetary allocation for the Pentagon, which of course largely goes to fund the military-industrial complex. One can take a safe bet that it is a matter of time before Mattis himself gets re-employed in the corporate board of some big arms manufacturing enterprise. The passion with which he has been advocating Saudi Arabia’s cause in the downstream of the Jamal Khashoggi affair speaks volumes about the unholy nexus at work involving the sheikhs, the Pentagon and the arms vendors – and the US lawmakers.

This sort of nexus has spawned a powerful coalition of interest groups who are viscerally opposed to a “demilitarization” of the US foreign policies, which is at the core of Trump’s agenda. Their favorite candidate in the 2016 election was Hillary Clinton. Their focus today is on debilitating the Trump presidency in any whichever way they can and to work toward ensuring that Trump doesn’t win a second term.

In this holding operation, Mattis played a stellar role by systematically undermining the Trump agenda. Mattis is a skilled operator in the military bureaucracy and his departure leaves a void for the Swamp. But his exit is not going to be the end of the vicious struggle going on in American politics. The good part is that Trump seems to understand that it will be a downhill slope ahead of him unless he took a last-ditch stance and dug in now to assert his constitutional prerogative as the president to push his foreign policy agenda. The point is, that agenda also happens to be linked to Trump’s campaign platform for the 2020 election.

(This blog appeared in Newsclick.)