Editorials

Trump loses a guardrail

The resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has prompted alarm around the world over President Donald Trump’s national security thinking. Mattis’ resignation letter is a scathing attack on the president’s thinking and instincts, unprecedented in the modern presidency. The world now waits with mounting anxiety for Trump’s next decisions.

Mattis was enjoying retirement at Stanford University when Trump picked him to be his secretary of defense. The president was attracted by several features of Mattis’ resume: a distinguished military career that culminated in service as commander of the U.S. Central Command; a fierce reputation, captured by his nickname “Mad Dog”; and notable disagreements with President Barack Obama over priorities in Middle East policy, especially concerning Iran: Any readiness to disagree with his predecessor was a plus in Trump’s estimation.

Mattis accepted the offer, motivated by an opportunity to serve his country, the chance to steer a foreign policy neophyte and to again focus his — and his country’s — energies on Tehran, which he considered the real source of regional instability. U.S. allies and partners took great comfort from Mattis’ presence in the administration, viewing him as a source of continuity amidst Trump’s gyrations and declarations. The secretary of defense, along with Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were widely viewed as “the adults in the room” — guardrails to contain Trump’s more impetuous decisions. It was widely reported a year into the administration that the three men had vowed that one of them would remain in Washington at all times to prevent the president from making a spontaneous move that could be injurious to the national interest.

Trump grew disappointed in “his general,” frustrated as he checked the president’s instincts and resentful of Mattis’ image providing maturity and oversight. In recent weeks, he had referred to Mattis as “moderate dog” and “sort of a Democrat.” By all (anonymous) sources, the resentment was mutual: Mattis was troubled by the president’s decisions — both how they were made and their substance — and slowed or blocked implementation of the most worrisome by bureaucratic maneuvers.

Last week, the yawning chasm between the president and his secretary of defense could no longer be bridged. The trigger was Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, a move that honored a campaign promise but was inconsistent with U.S. policy and objectives as articulated the very day before. A series of other decisions pushed Mattis to the brink, however. They included Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the multinational agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear program; the sudden announcement of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the way the administration was pursuing relations with North Korea; the president’s disparagement of U.S. allies and alliances; and his readiness to ignore Russian misbehavior, including its alleged meddling in U.S. elections. A final slap in the face was Trump’s disregard for Mattis’ recommendation for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a traditional prerogative of the secretary of defense.

Amid their differences, Mattis signaled to the world a stability in U.S. policy. While Trump embraced disruption, official policy was marked by more continuity than change. But there was no missing the widening gap between the president’s inclinations and the government’s policies. Japan knows that tension well. The one unswerving principle in Trump’s worldview is the belief that U.S. allies — and Tokyo is no exception— exploit their relationship with the U.S. to gain economic advantages and “free ride” on U.S. alliance commitments. While the president openly questioned U.S. readiness to honor treaty commitments if those partners did not increase spending, Mattis traveled to those same capitals to show that the U.S. remains steadfast; he visited the Indo-Pacific region seven times in just under two years in office. His first trip as secretary of defense was to Japan to reassure the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the ongoing commitment to its defense. Similarly, he visited in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Singapore to tell officials here that Washington would not jeopardize its defense as it pursued denuclearization with Pyongyang.

Trump attempted to pre-empt news of Mattis’ decision by saying the secretary “would retire” in February. Mattis then released his resignation letter, which provided damning details on his decision. In it, he pointedly noted his belief, among other things, in the need for strong alliances and the fact that China and Russia want “to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.” By acknowledging that Trump needs a secretary of defense whose views are more in line with those of the president, he is saying that Trump does not believe these things. No resignation could be more troubling, to the U.S, Japan and the world.