WASHINGTON/TOKYO - Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday after clashing with President Donald Trump over the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and after two years of deep disagreements over America’s role in the world.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February after two tumultuous years struggling to soften and moderate the president’s hard-line and sometimes sharply changing policies. He told Trump in a letter that he was leaving because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
His departure was immediately lamented by foreign policy hands and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who viewed the retired marine general as a sober voice of experience in the ear of a president who had never held political office or served in the military. Even Trump allies expressed fear over Mattis’ decision to quit, believing him to be an important moderating force on the president.
“Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”
For its part, the Japanese government on Friday expressed hope for continued close cooperation with the United States, its most important security ally.
“We expect (Mattis’ successor) to take over (and continue) the country’s policy of working resolutely with its allies,” Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a news conference, adding he was “a bit surprised” by the abrupt resignation announcement.
Mattis will leave the Trump administration at a time when Japan needs to work with the United States on dealing with North Korea.
In a separate news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he appreciates the U.S. defense secretary’s contribution to peace and stability in the international community, including the Indo-Pacific region, and also the role he played in strengthening the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Mattis did not mention the dispute over Syria in his letter or proposed deep cuts to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, another significant policy dispute. He noted his “core belief” that American strength is “inextricably linked” with the nation’s alliances with other countries, a position seemingly at odds with the “America First” policy of the president.
The defense secretary also said China and Russia want to spread their “authoritarian model” and promote their interests at the expense of America and its allies. “That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense,” he wrote.
The announcement came a day after Trump surprised U.S. allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, and as he continues to consider cutting in half the American deployment in Afghanistan by this summer.
Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria has been sharply criticized for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who may well face a Turkish assault once U.S. troops leave, and had been staunchly opposed by the Pentagon.
Mattis, in his resignation letter, emphasized the importance of standing up for U.S. allies — an implicit criticism of the president’s decision on this issue and others.
“While the U.S. 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,” Mattis wrote.
Last year, Republican Sen. Bob Corker — a frequent Trump critic — said Mattis, along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were helping “separate our country from chaos.”
Tillerson was fired early this year. Kelly is to leave the White House in the coming days.
Mattis’ departure has long been rumored, but officials close to him have insisted that the battle-hardened retired marine would hang on, determined to bring military calm and judgment to the administration’s often chaotic national security decisions and to soften some of Trump’s sharper tones with allies.
Opponents of Mattis, however, have seen him as an unwanted check on Trump.
Mattis went to the White House Thursday afternoon to resign after failing to persuade the president in a tense Oval Office meeting to change his decision on withdrawing troops from Syria, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Another U.S. official said that Mattis’ decision was his own, and not a “forced resignation.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump said a replacement would be chosen soon.
Born in Pullman, Washington, Mattis enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1969, later earning a history degree from Central Washington University. He was commissioned as an officer in 1972. As a lieutenant colonel, he led an assault battalion into Kuwait during the first U.S. war with Iraq in 1991.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mattis commanded the marines who launched an early amphibious assault into Afghanistan and established a U.S. foothold in the Taliban heartland. As the first wave of marines moved toward Kandahar, Mattis declared, “The marines have landed, and now we own a piece of Afghanistan.”
Two years later, he helped lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003 as the two-star commander of the 1st Marine Division. As a four-star, he led Central Command from 2010 until his retirement in 2013.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin welcomed the U.S. decision to pull its troops out of Syria, saying Thursday that “Donald is right.”
Speaking at Thursday’s annual marathon news conference, Putin said he agrees Trump that the Islamic State group has been defeated, making the U.S. presence in Syria unnecessary. He also argued that the U.S. troops shouldn’t have been there to start with.
He noted that there is still a danger that IS militants could flee from Syria to their home countries and other regions.
“It’s a big threat to all of us, including Russia, the United States, Europe and Asian countries,” Putin said. “Donald is right about that, I agree with him.”
The Russian president repeated Moscow’s long-held argument that the U.S. presence in Syria was unlawful from the start, unlike the Russian deployment that was made at Syrian President Bashar Assad’s invitation.
Russia has waged an air campaign in Syria since September 2015, changing the course of the war in Assad’s favor and helping his forces reclaim control over most of the country’s territory.
U.S. troops have been present in Syria’s northeast and southeast, where they helped train Syrian rebels fighting IS.
Putin added on a skeptical note that it remains to be seen if the U.S. will fully withdraw.
“The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 17 years, and they have kept saying every year that they would pull their troops out,” he said.