Secretary of Defense James Mattis has announced he will resign at the end of February, in a letter publicly rebuking President Trump’s foreign policy. Mattis resigned one day after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria and on the same day that reports emerged that Trump has ordered the withdrawal of about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. The New York Times reports Mattis is the first prominent Cabinet member to resign in protest over a national security issue in almost 40 years. Much of the Washington establishment expressed shock over Mattis’s resignation. We speak with Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. He’s the author of several books, including his latest, Twilight of the American Century. His other books include America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History and Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has announced he’s resigning at the end of February, while publicly rebuking President Trump’s foreign policy. Mattis resigned one day after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria and on the same day reports emerged that Trump has ordered the withdrawal of about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. That’s about half the current US force there.
In his resignation letter, General Mattis, four-star general, implicitly criticized President Trump’s foreign policy. He wrote, “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” unquote.
Mattis went on to say, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he said. In the letter, Mattis did not make a direct reference to Syria, but he did call out Russia and China.
The New York Times reports Mattis is the first prominent Cabinet member to resign in protest over a national security issue in almost 40 years.
Much of the Washington establishment expressed shock over Mattis’s resignation. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said, quote, “This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida responded to Mattis’s resignation, saying, “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries,” unquote.
Prior to his time at the Pentagon, Mattis served as head of US Central Command and as a supreme allied commander of NATO. In 2004, he led the US Marine attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. In May of 2004, he ordered an attack on a wedding party near Syria; 42 civilians were reportedly killed, including 13 children.
We turn now to Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. He’s the author of several books, including his latest, Twilight of the American Century. His other books include America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military Historyand Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. He’s professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. He also lost his son in Iraq.
Professor Andrew Bacevich, welcome back to Democracy Now!
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could first respond to the resignation of the secretary of defense? And then, if this were President Obama and he was announcing the pullout of troops from Syria and half the force from Afghanistan, wouldn’t the peace movement be celebrating? What is your response?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is an interesting situation. I have to think that Trump must have expected that this abrupt announcement of a withdrawal from Syria would lead to Mattis’s resignation, and it probably is something that Trump welcomes. There is no question that Mattis has been an obstacle to Trump’s efforts to reorient US policy, particularly US policy in the Middle East.
You know, Mattis’s letter of resignation, that you quoted, when he talked about his four decades of engagement with these matters, is very telling. He represents the establishment’s perspective, that has evolved over the course of those four decades. And for anyone who says — who looks at US policy over the past four decades, particularly in the Middle East, and says, “Yeah, it’s really gone well,” then I would think that they would view Mattis’s resignation as a disappointment.
Now, when Trump ran for the presidency, he denounced our wars in the Middle East. He promised to withdraw militarily from the Middle East. Two years into his presidency, that hasn’t happened. And in many respects, Mattis has been among those who have frustrated the president’s efforts. He’s the commander-in-chief, and yet he seems not to be able to get things done. So here he is, acting as the commander-in-chief.
Now, I’m in the camp who thinks that we ought to wind down these wars, that we’ve got more important things to do. My only problem with Trump’s decision is that, like so many of Trump’s decisions, it’s done impetuously, overnight, not having been thought through, not having been coordinated. Yes, let’s get out of Syria, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a policy with respect to the civil war in Syria. I think that the way Trump is approaching this thing, we don’t have any policy. And that’s going to be a problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a connection to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? And let me explain. You have the CIA saying they believe that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was responsible for his death and dismemberment in Istanbul in the Saudi Consulate. So you then have President Trump dealing with Erdogan. And apparently this week they had a conversation. There’s this threat of Erdogan, that he’s going to go after the Kurds. These are the US allies, the Kurdish soldiers in Syria. And Trump — perhaps Erdogan knows something more about the murder, certainly has been releasing information that makes the Trump administration look very bad in their support of the crown prince — also Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, so close to and advising the crown prince and dealing with this murder. That Erdogan says, “We’re going to attack the Kurds. You’ve to stop being there and protecting them,” and so Trump announces he’s pulling out.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I think my answer to your question is: I really don’t know. And I think one of the things that’s important here is the difficulty of knowing whether, when Trump makes these decisions, there really is any — that he has any larger purpose in mind at all. As I said, when he ran for the presidency, he ran as an antiwar candidate. Now, whether or not he ran as an antiwar candidate because of some principled opposition to the wars that he inherited, or whether he did it because he thought it was a way to win votes, is impossible to say.
Where we find ourselves at the present moment — and I do think it’s a huge problem — is that his commitment to Saudi Arabia, combined with the reaffirmation of the US commitment to Israel, to my mind, creates the likelihood that the United States is going to continue to contribute to disorder, instability in the region, as we have done ever since the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. That is to say, despite this withdrawal from Syria, if it actually happens — you know, so many times he announces something and then reverses course. But even assuming that the withdrawal from Syria happens, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have anything like a coherent policy in the region.
So, the people who get excited about Mattis’s resignation and see the possibility there of chaos, of confusion, of disorder, I think their fears are justified. That said, what they seem to not focus on is that the course that Mattis represented — that is to say, the continuation of US wars in the Middle East that have produced nothing positive — that that supposed wisdom was not going to, and has not and would not, produce anything positive, no matter how long we persist.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play a clip for you of Phyllis Bennis. We spoke to her on Thursday right after the announcement about Syria, US pulling out all 2,000 troops. This was her response.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: We do know that the warplanes and the drones are going to continue to be bombing in Syria. And it’s those US bombs and US coalition-led bombs that are creating enormous pressure, enormous — wreaking enormous havoc on the people of Syria — again, this is something that Yazan spoke about very eloquently — when we look at Raqqa, when we look at the other cities that have been largely destroyed by US bombing, after being under attack, both people and the infrastructure of cities, by ISIS. This is not going to qualitatively change that on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: “This is not going to qualitatively change things on the ground.” So, Andrew Bacevich, for those who think that the US won’t be involved in the bombing of Syria, that it would make it more an air war along the lines of the US-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen right now?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I think she’s making a great point, that you don’t have to have troops on the ground in order to engage in war. You don’t have to have troops on the ground to engage in wars that are stupid and counterproductive. We have far fewer troops in Afghanistan today than we did in past years. Trump wants to have even fewer still. Yet, if I’m not mistaken, the number of airstrikes, US airstrikes, in Afghanistan over the course of the Trump administration has increased substantially. So, the wars continue.
You know, the fundamental question, it seems to me, is: Does the continuation of these wars contribute — are they politically purposeful? Do they contribute to some outcome that is either — that either advances US interests or is consistent with our ostensible moral values? And the answer, of course, is no.
But again, it’s not as if Secretary Mattis, this supposed font of wisdom, was offering any alternative, any course of action that would bring a rationale to our policy in the Middle East that would cause these wars to make strategic sense. Basically, he — and so much of the national security establishment — wants to continue these wars, because, the truth is, they can’t think of any alternative other than to, you know, press on.
AMY GOODMAN: It might be interesting to listen to all the Republicans and Democrats who were saying this is a terrible idea, pulling the troops out, that we were just on the brink of victory in wiping out ISIS there, when others might say, “Where was evidence of that?” Could you talk about Mattis’s history, General Mattis’s history? For example, The Intercept pointing out, in 2004 it was Mattis who planned the Marine assault on Fallujah that reduced the Iraqi city to rubble, forcing 200,000 residents from their homes. And according to the Red Cross, at least 800 civilians were killed.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, you know, I mean, he is undoubtedly a distinguished soldier, as that word “distinguished” gets defined in military circles. He is a competent professional. He is a master of his trade. I think he is — wouldn’t want to compare it with Petraeus, but he has a certain skill, I think, in relating to the press and, therefore, in creating an image that goes down well in Washington circles as the thoughtful warrior. Apparently, he is quite well read.
My problem is that he’s a conventional soldier with a conventional mindset, totally unimaginative. Again, and this is — I hate to suggest that I sympathize with the president or agree with the president, but whatever caused Trump, back in 2016, to say, “Elect me president because I know our wars in the Middle East are stupid, and they need to end,” he was onto something. And Mattis, as a representative of the national security establishment, is unable to acknowledge the essential truth of Trump’s statement. He is unable to acknowledge that since 2003, in particular, although, arguably, you could choose an earlier date. But since 2003, in particular, we have gone down a path that is self-destructive, is mindless, and the only way to get out of the mess we’re in is to make a radical course change.
Now, it needs to be a radical course change that is thought through, coordinated in advance, debated, groundwork laid — not simply, as Trump tends to do, get up in the morning and announce that he’s made a decision. But there would be no — there will be no change of course as long as people like Mattis are running national security policy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in this last minute that we have, it’s not clear that Trump will move forward with this, as he hasn’t with so many other things, or will move forward with something that no one ever predicted. Who knows?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Because there’s such massive pressure on him right now. And who he will nominate as the next defense secretary. You know, Lindsey Graham has been vying for it, but he’s one of the fiercest critics of Trump right now on this issue. But if it does move forward and he halves the US force in Afghanistan, he pulls out thousands of soldiers from Syria, the whole force, what should happen next? What would you think is a rational US foreign policy in the Middle East?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think, at the present moment, the nexus of the issue is this competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dominate the Persian Gulf. And the Trump administration has affirmed that we side with Saudi Arabia, against Iran. I think that strategically that makes no sense whatsoever.
I think that if you think about the long-term prospects of nations in that part of the world, Iran, A, will continue to exist and, B, will continue to be an important actor, and therefore, in the long run, we need to find a way to reconcile with or at least coexist with Iran. So, we need to find a way to remove ourselves from the Saudi camp and to take a more balanced position.
I don’t mean for a second to suggest that this is easily done or could be done overnight. But we need to have balance, not total disengagement, but a lower military profile, and to, therefore, diplomatically seek to find ways to restore some semblance of order in that region, when our military efforts to transform the region have simply created great disorder and damage to ourselves and to others.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you for being with us, retired colonel, Vietnam War vet, author of a number of books, including Twilight of the American Century. His other books include America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History and Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.
When we come back, a prison reform bill poised to be signed by President Trump? Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” by Glenn Branca. Branca died earlier this year at the age of 69.