Elephants in the Room
Mattis’s Resignation Isn’t a Crisis Yet—But It Probably Will Be
The U.S. secretary of defense was right to resign in protest, but Trump can’t handle the consequences.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s resignation in protest has triggered the most serious civil-military challenge the Trump administration has yet faced. It is not a full-blown crisis but could easily turn into one if the administration mishandles the next several weeks or if adversaries take advantage of the policy chaos and make focused attacks on U.S. interests at home and abroad.
This challenge comes as a result of the administration’s mishandling of policies and failure to step up to adversaries at home and abroad, which means there is every reason to be pessimistic about what’s coming
First, let’s stipulate three obvious facts: Mattis left in protest and did not simply retire. President Donald Trump’s spin to the contrary lasted only a few minutes, until Mattis released his own resignation letter.
Doubtless many things contributed to Mattis’s decision, including repeated policy reversals on such matters as the establishment of a Space Force or the choice of the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the catalytic event was Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops still fighting the Islamic State in Syria, despite the strong advice of his top national security advisors, including Mattis, that doing so would be a major blunder.
And while it customary for cabinet officials to come and go, the pace of departures and the overall personnel and policy churn in the Trump administration is beyond anything seen in recent years. This is not normal.
To make sense of this, let’s carefully distinguish between normative (what ought to be) and predictive (what is likely to be) insights from civil-military relations theory.
Under the category of what ought to be for healthy civil-military relations, consider these five points. Firstly, Trump’s order to withdraw troops from Syria was legal. Mattis was within his rights to argue against it but then was right to accept it and pass the order along the chain of command. Of course, Trump can reverse himself on this yet again, as he has done many times on other issues. But it is certainly the commander in chief’s prerogative to declare that he believes the mission is over and it is time for the troops to come home, even if reality contradicts him.
The major premises of the move—that the Islamic State is so decisively defeated that the United States can take the pressure off without fear that they would return, that abandoning the Kurdish allies who helped achieve considerable success against the Islamic State will not hurt U.S. interests in the long run, and that catering to Russia and Iran and Syria’s policy preferences in this way will not adversely affect the regional balance of power—are all false. Presidents have the right to be wrong.
Secondly, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria was hasty and poorly coordinated. It had all of the trademarks of the failed policy rollouts that have marked the administration since the early days: tweets that contradict senior officials, no accompanying strategy to mitigate obvious downsides, no coordination with international allies and partners nor with domestic political allies, and so on. But it was not merely a tweet; it was a genuine policy decision communicated to Mattis through proper channels. If Mattis had ignored this order, he would have triggered an immediate civil-military crisis.
There has been confusion about this sort of thing in the public commentary by Trump critics. Sometimes the president muses aloud in conversations with reporters or on Twitter, and in the process he can say something that, if constructed as a formal policy decision and order, would introduce total policy chaos—for example, Trump’s musings about rules of engagement for the troops he deployed to the border in the late stages of the midterm political campaign. Subordinate officials, especially the military, were right to disregard those musings and to wait for formal orders. Many dumb things have been tweeted but not turned into orders. The Syria decision was different, and so it deserved to be followed and implemented.
The president ought to expect that orders like his Syria decision will be implemented (and, I predict, they will be implemented). He further ought to expect that policy mistakes like the Syria decision will be defended by his political appointees, as Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller did. And if the political appointee—Mattis, say—cannot defend the decision, that appointee should resign. However, proper civil-military relations do not require that Trump’s uniformed military advisors defend the decision. On the contrary, the senior military leaders, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford on down to field commanders, are obliged by the norms of civil-military relations to give their personal professional opinion to their civilian bosses, Trump and Congress, even or especially when it contradicts the policy preferences of the president.
Trump should thus expect that Congress will call Dunford and others to testify and will ask them the awkward questions raised by the Syria and Afghanistan decisions: Will abandoning the battlefield give the Islamic State an opportunity to regroup and rebuild? Will Iran benefit from this policy decision? And how will the abandonment of the Kurds affect America’s ability to work with local partners in the future? Proper civil-military relations require that the military honestly answer those questions, even if its answers contradict the views of the commander in chief.
Mattis was able to resign in protest without triggering a crisis because he is a political appointee. Dunford and the handful of top brass entrusted with being the strategic leaders of the military should not resign in protest, even if they agree with Mattis that Trump has committed a strategic blunder that will hurt U.S. interests and likely raise the butcher’s bill in the fight against terrorists and American adversaries.
It is possible to construct wild hypotheticals where a resignation in protest by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs might be warranted—say if the president was ordering Dunford to launch a nuclear attack against Mexico as punishment for refusing to pay for the wall. But in most cases, even when the president is making a costly blunder, the “cure” of a military resignation in protest is worse than the “disease.” This is because members of the military are supposed to serve as apolitical advisors in the policy process and then apolitical implementers of the policy once the decisions are made. As a nation, Americans entrust the military with extraordinary power and influence and can afford to do so only if the military respects the norms of proper civil-military relations. One of those norms is that the military will not precipitate civil-military crises when ordered to implement policies they deem to be mistakes.
This does not mean that the president has unlimited power to do whatever he wants. On the contrary, Congress and the courts are empowered as checks on presidential mismanagement. The cabinet has constitutional power to put further limits on a rogue president. Everyone in the executive branch is required to follow the law and thus to defy outright illegal orders. And the First Amendment guarantees that individual citizens and the media can and should speak out when the president makes a mistake. But these are primarily roles for other political actors. Healthy civil-military relations depend on the other civilians—not the military—holding the president accountable.
That’s what should happen. But what will happen? Firstly, the departure of the most respected administration voice on national security—and the reckless moves that led to his departure—will mean policymaking will get harder, not easier. The military will continue to obey explicit, legal orders, but they will likely exhibit lots more foot-dragging and other forms of bureaucratic politics to slow down policies they deem unwise. The U.S. record of civil-military relations is an enviable one, but it is a record of what I call “military shirking,” namely military efforts to get policies to align with their preferences rather than the preferences of their civilian masters. And shirking increases when civilians are weak and when they try to push the military to do things the military deems unwise. The civilian side of the national security house was already pretty weak in the Trump administration. Mattis’s departure makes it even weaker.
The departure of both Mattis and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly likely ends the administration’s over-reliance on retired generals to staff civilian national security posts. I supported the individual personnel choices that led to the surfeit of military in mufti, but I acknowledged it was problematic and would increase the risks of politicization of the force. Having seen the way Trump has treated former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Kelly, and now Mattis, it is likely going to be a bit harder for Trump to recruit a retired officer into serving in this way again. This is a tiny sliver of silver lining in the dark clouds amassing above us.
The confirmation hearings for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-designate Mark Milley and for Mattis’s successor will be brutal. Milley will be walking an impossibly narrow tightrope. Trump demands an unusually high degree of public expressions of loyalty and views even minor disagreements of opinion as disloyalty. Yet Milley cannot be confirmed if he tells outright falsehoods. And he could well lose the confidence of the senior military he is expected to lead if he comes off as a political shill for the administration. This is a challenge in normal times; these are abnormal times, and so the challenge will be abnormally great. The same applies in spades to Mattis’s successor, who first must be wooed by the White House to accept the nomination—something that the administration is manifestly struggling to persuade others to do—and then must walk the same tightrope.
Trump promised he would be an unconventional commander in chief, and this is one campaign promise he has unquestionably fulfilled. However, the conventions of U.S. civil-military relations still apply and are now being played out on the political stage. All is not calm.