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‘Allies and Partners Will Think Twice Before Taking America at Its Word’

In an interview, James Mattis’s onetime speechwriter criticizes Trump’s treatment of long-standing U.S. partners like the Syrian Kurds.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives for a speech at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19, 2018.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives for a speech at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19, 2018. Navy Mass Communications Spc. 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm/U.S. Defense Department

In the 11 months since he left the U.S. Defense Department, former Defense Secretary James Mattis has been tight-lipped about his time in President Donald Trump’s administration. Now, the American public can read for themselves what went on behind the scenes of one of the most scrutinized relationships in Washington, through the eyes of Mattis’s onetime speechwriter, the retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot Guy Snodgrass.

The picture Snodgrass paints in his new book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis, is not a pretty one. In anecdote after anecdote, Snodgrass reveals a chaotic administration veering from one decision to the next with little thought for the consequences as senior officials scrambled to bend policy to the president’s whims. The end result, Snodgrass says, is the deterioration of long-standing relationships with trusted American allies, who feel they can no longer rely on the United States to keep its word.

In the months since Snodgrass put down his pen this summer, the tumult in the administration has only increased. After a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 6, Trump abruptly withdrew U.S. troops from the border with Syria, a move that was widely seen as paving the way for a devastating Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurdish fighters who helped the United States defeat the Islamic State.

Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon With Secretary Mattis, Guy M. Snodgrass, Sentinel, 352 pp., , October 2019

Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis, Guy M. Snodgrass, Sentinel, 352 pp., $27, October 2019

Snodgrass chatted with Foreign Policy about his decision to write the book and how U.S. foreign policy has unfolded in the months since Mattis left the administration.

Foreign Policy: What led you to write the book? What was your aim, and did you achieve it?

Guy Snodgrass: I conceived it a few months after I left Secretary Mattis’s office. I had no intent to write a book while I was on the staff. It was only after I left that my friends and family said, “Man, you just had the experience of a lifetime. What you experienced would be fascinating to read about.”

And of course, as I watched the highly polarized nature of what’s occurring right now in our domestic politics, I was disheartened that there is so much disinformation being pushed around, that each party is slinging mud at the other, and there’s a lot of misleading statements being made. So I thought it was important to put something out there that’s from a firsthand source who was actually in the room or on the phone or party to conversations that have such significance and importance so that the American public can read for themselves what I witnessed and make the decision on whether they like the direction or dislike the direction, and that’s up to them.

FP: The book is widely viewed as anti-Trump. Do you see it that way?

GS: It is my memoir of the experience I had serving alongside James Mattis, what I was a party to, what I witnessed. There were monumental moments in history that were occurring especially for America’s military. So I tried to provide an apolitical, unbiased look at things that I thought we did well but also areas I expressed concern about and what those lessons mean as we move forward.

It’s less anti-Trump and more a book about leadership. It’s a book about how do you succeed and then what causes us to fail—for example, if you do not share with your cabinet secretaries what the plan is. In large respects in the Trump administration there is no plan. There is no strategy right now. We are just reacting to world events or reacting to whims. That’s a very dangerous place for the country to be. It also means that when you rule by fiat or rule by tweet, then everyone in your administration is caught to respond.

Although President Trump is the one who currently occupies the office, that could certainly hold true for any side of the aisle if you have a leader like that. So it’s more just the perils that exist when things are not well coordinated, when you attack your allies and partners, when you go after relationships that have taken decades to build. 

I give the president credit where credit is due. When I put the pen down in the July or August time frame, at that point I gave President Trump a lot of credit for accelerating the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, switching from defeating them to annihilating them so they could not harm countries around the world. 

But then you see the Syria withdrawal, and then you see how we betrayed the Kurds. Even military leaders have said that the team that took down Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had to take significantly increased risk because we had withdrawn forces from Syria that we normally would not have had to. So that’s part of that direct danger that can exist when you make decisions that have national and international significance without thinking about the second- and third-order effects.

FP: When U.S. allies look at the events that have taken place over the past month, what conclusions can they draw?

GS: If you just look at the microcosm of the last two weeks, think about how that looks to your allies and partners and also how that decision-making process looks to our adversaries. When we walked into the counter-Islamic State coalition alongside our allies and partners, part of that agreement—especially with the Syrian Kurds—was, “Hey, we need you.” Honestly, we needed them for this fight because you did not have another skilled military that was indigenous that could help us on the ground as much as the Kurds could.

So when you think about the agreement that you make with them, that they were helping us and we wouldn’t forget that, and then suddenly to throw them under the bus, put them in this very precarious position between Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin from Russia and Bashar al-Assad from Syria, and you just walk away from that—I believe that calls into question America’s role in the world. It also makes allies question whether we will turn on them at the drop of a hat if we think it’s advantageous for us to do so, and I think that’s very dangerous.

The other point I’d make on that same situation, and of course we’ve seen this play out in the last two weeks, is just that Russia and Iran are very willing to rush in and fill the vacuum as the prevailing winds shift. Because it wasn’t a well-thought-out decision, suddenly the U.S. military comes roaring back—we’re going to protect the oil fields, and then we’re suddenly back in Syria again it would seem. So it’s just a chaotic decision-making process, and I would think if you are a U.S. ally, you’d have a hard time figuring out what we stand for and when we can be relied on to actually stand with our allies.

FP: Is it fair to say that State and Defense Department officials sought to undermine the president on important policy decisions, particularly the Syria withdrawal?

GS: I would caution your readers that what this isn’t is some sort of effort to undermine the president of the United States, but it is an opportunity to educate. I do believe there were plenty of times when there was what appeared to be a hasty decision made, so leaders would intercede to help ensure the president was aware of the ramifications, aware of the second- and third-order effects, so that it wasn’t a snap decision. But even with that interceding, you are still seeing that there’s a lot of fairly chaotic decisions and actions being made. 

When Trump himself states that we will stand with the Kurds and then subsequently directly undercuts what he said the year prior, yes, that hurts our situation with the Kurds, it undermines the U.S. position in the Middle East, and it also undermines America’s ability to foster the trust and confidence required to maintain long-standing alliances and partnerships. Understandably, allies and partners will think twice before taking America at its word.

FP: What does the public get right and wrong about Mattis and his relationship to Trump?

GS: When you think about Mattis, what people get right is certainly his long-standing sense of obligation and duty to the nation. The year and a half I spent alongside him, I never saw anything that would make me believe there was anything other than just his desire to do the best job he possibly could, and he understood the importance of maintaining a strong military.

As far as the relationship between him and President Trump, I think there is a lot that people have gotten wrong, and again that’s why I can appreciate the opportunity to write this book because these people can now read the firsthand account of what the relationship really looked like. There are also some things about Mattis’s relationship with former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and others that they are going to find surprising. I think there was this public perception that the adults in the room were this somehow cohesive, unified group who were always marching in the same direction together, and that’s not true.

So for people to read about what some of those relationships really looked like, it just gives you a sense of how challenging this period of time is and how chaotic the decision-making apparatus is.

FP: In the book, you are at times critical of Mattis. What are his faults? 

GS: Mattis is a person just like the rest of us—we, all of us, want to do the best job we possibly can. I think that what my book does that no other has is it humanizes him; it puts him in those challenging situations, and readers get to experience for themselves the times that he rose to the occasion and times that of course he was incredibly frustrated. But one thing I believe all readers will walk away with is just the fact that he tirelessly pursued what was in the best interest of America and America’s military.

Look, it’s a pressurized environment. It’s a difficult job in the best of times, and as we’ve seen over the last several years, it has become incredibly difficult to stay aligned with the administration, to make sure that everyone is moving in the same direction. So is that challenging? Yes. Does that put pressure on Mattis and those around him who make life difficult? Absolutely. But I think, again, the book is a very humanizing look at him.

FP: You resigned from the administration after Mattis’s deputies blocked a job offer you received from a different office in the Pentagon. Do you blame Mattis for how you were treated?

GS: Without a shadow of a doubt, because I exchanged emails with Mattis at the time that I was planning to resign, there is no doubt in my mind that what happened during my tenure with him was done with his full knowledge. That being said, this book isn’t about me—this book is about the situation, about the message, about what is occurring right now. There is no rule or law in America that says you don’t have to work for a challenging boss. When you do, you do the very best job you can.

FP: Have you talked to Mattis about the book?

GS: There is a conspiracy theory going around that Mattis used me to write the book he really wanted to write. Of course, that’s not true. That’s false. I have great regard for Mattis and great respect for Mattis, so back in January, after he left his job and I was starting to put my thoughts together and starting to write the book, I reached out to him to let him know I was working on the project. He expressed his displeasure. He didn’t think I should write about my own experience, but I disagreed with that, so I continued to write.

Mattis himself, through his secretary, put out a statement saying he hasn’t read the book, he doesn’t intend to, and he called my character and my integrity into question. I was disappointed of course by that because he knows just as well as I know that James Mattis doesn’t get to define my character, my integrity, my honor—that’s something I define, and actions always speak louder than words ever can. 

FP: What do you say to those who doubt you are telling the truth?

GS: I stand beside everything in the book. As people engage with the material, I think they will be able to see for themselves the veracity, and I’ve already had people who worked with all the players in the book reach out to me independently to say, ‘Hey, the way you characterized this is right on, and by the way here’s another anecdote.’ So I have no doubt that there are plenty of people who can corroborate my experience. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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