The Mattis Resignation: What Does It Mean for the Future of National Security?

Last night the White House announced that Secretary of Defense James Mattis had resigned, effective February 28. Speculation had been rising for months that Mattis might leave the administration, but it seemed to have eased recently as he achieved some bureaucratic victories.

Mattis has served the two-year average tenure for secretaries of defense, so he is not leaving early, but many commentators regard his departure with concern because he was seen as an experienced and moderating voice in an administration that tended to the erratic. So, there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety about what happens next.

Q1: Why did Mattis resign?

A1: Mattis’s resignation letter gives two reasons. The first is strong support for partners and allies: “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” President Trump frequently disparaged allies and the value of alliances, and Mattis was perceived as having to sooth relationships afterward.

The second reason related to Russia and China: “Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model . . . That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.” This likely related especially to Russia where the president has frequently expressed admiration for Putin.

The precipitating events seem to have been the president’s announcement of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, which caught the Pentagon by surprise, and the apparent decision to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, contrary to advice given by the Pentagon.

Cancian: I was surprised that he left now after achieving two bureaucratic victories. In early December, with the help of congressional leadership, he apparently convinced the president to support a higher defense budget for FY 2020 after the president had been inclined to make cuts in light of rising deficits. Furthermore, his main bureaucratic rival had recently left, so stories about imminent departure had disappeared. I thought that he would stay to provide continuity, but I was wrong.

What is missing from the letter is as interesting as what is there. It’s customary in these letters to thank the president for his support and leadership. That’s conspicuously absent. Mattis expresses his gratitude for having the opportunity to serve as secretary of defense, but he never mentions the president.

Harrison: There is likely more going on behind the scenes in terms of disagreements between Mattis and the president than what is known publicly. The letter lays out Mattis’s view of the world and then says, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects . . .” That last phrase, “and other subjects,” seems to imply that there are other areas of disagreement that led to his departure. Syria may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Hunter: It has been clear since Secretary Mattis was first nominated that he and the president differed on issues of fundamental moral consequence, including torture. It was to the President’s credit that he selected Secretary Mattis despite these differences, but it has been growing equally clear that these policy differences were doing serious damage to their working relationship. The growing disconnect was clear enough that the question in Washington for several months has been when Secretary Mattis would leave and for what reason, not whether. The fact that the withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan were the trigger suggests that Secretary Mattis chose to lay the marker down at the breach of these alliances, before more fundamental breaches of US alliances with NATO and South Korea were actively in play, in order to arrest the building momentum in the White House toward the most isolationist strain of the President’s America First policy.

Q2: What does the Mattis departure mean for foreign policy?

A2: Mattis had been a strong proponent of allies and partners. He cited that support in his resignation letter, but it is also a central element of his National Defense Strategy. He was also regarded as being reluctant to use military force. In this, he might actually have been closer to the president than others who might use force more readily. Here, a lot depends on who the next secretary is.

Cancian: We may finally be seeing the implementation of a “Trump strategy” that consists of high defense budgets but disengagement from regional conflicts. The president recently announced the withdrawal of forces from Syria, troop reductions in Africa were previously announced, and apparently, the administration is considering troop reductions in Afghanistan. Although controversial with many experts, these disengagements have broad popular support and were the kind of actions that the president had proposed during the campaign. If these disengagements extended to Europe and Asia, however, that would undermine the core tenets of both the national defense strategy and the national security strategy, which see a long-term competition with Russia and China.

Harrison: One of the patterns we have seen in this administration is that Trump has some core ideas about what he wants to do as president, many of which are fiercely opposed by the foreign policy establishment in his own party, but the president will keep pushing until he gets his way. His cabinet and leaders on the Hill can slow him down and occasionally convince him otherwise for a moment, but he eventually reverts to his original thinking. We’ve seen this when it comes to pulling out of the Iran deal, hitting China with tariffs, and other major decisions that buck the establishment. Now we are seeing it happen with Syria, Afghanistan, and perhaps the defense budget.

Hunter: It is evident that the president ignores the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy developed by his administration. He is increasingly comfortable imposing stronger versions of his “America First” policy over the objections of his military and civilian advisors. But while presidents have tremendous latitude to pursue foreign policy, they still experience checks and balances from Congress. The key determiner in how far President Trump will shift U.S. foreign policy towards America First and isolationism will be Congress. Congress has already sharply limited the president’s ability to make accommodations to Russia by increasing sanctions. Congress has also worked to soften some of the administration’s more aggressive moves against China. Early congressional reaction to Secretary Mattis’s departure suggests that Congress will continue to constrain the president in many of the areas Secretary Mattis identified. However, the president may succeed in wearing down this resistance over time.

Q3: What does the Mattis departure mean for defense budgets and programs?

A3: Secretaries of defense tended to be hawkish, so change is unlikely on the Pentagon’s position on the top line. Similarly, the focus on high-end competition against Russia and China has broad support in the national security community.

Cancian: A new secretary, even if supportive of the budget level and strategy, could change the balance between new programs and legacy programs, that is, whether to develop entirely new systems or to upgrade existing systems with new capabilities and munitions. Under Mattis, the services seemed to be moving in the latter direction, but many national security experts want to see a break from the past by developing a new generation of high technology weapons.

One small but visible program that may lose traction is the close combat initiative that Mattis championed. The concept here, publicized by Army Major General Robert Scales (Ret.), was that the United States’ critical vulnerability was its sensitivity to casualties and that most casualties occurred in the close combat ranks. To mitigate this vulnerability, Mattis had directed this initiative to make these personnel better trained and equipped.

Harrison: One of the things to watch in the next few weeks is the top line for the FY 2020 defense budget request. Without warning, Trump announced in October that the budget would be $700 billion (not the $733 billion the Pentagon had been planning for). In early December, Trump doubled down on this by tweeting that the current budget of $716 billion was “crazy.” But then Politico reported days later that the budget may be going up to $750 billion after all. With Mattis’s resignation, the top-line budget may still be up in the air because the main proponent of a higher top line within the administration is now a dead man walking. The other person to watch is Mick Mulvaney, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the chief proponent of a lower defense budget within the administration. Mulvaney appears to be on the ascendancy, having moved over to serve as acting chief of staff for the president.

Hunter: The changes in budgets and programs could potentially be substantial depending on the next secretary. Under Secretary Mattis, the Defense Department has embraced the innovation agenda advanced by previous secretaries and by Congress but has pursued it mostly as a matter of reform rather than as a matter of investment. Secretary Mattis allowed the military services to determine the major programmatic decisions as the budget top line has grown. The result has been a combination of a push towards major change in the “how” of the acquisition process, and a very limited change in the nature of systems received investment, the “what” of acquisition programs. The open question going forward is how the next secretary will deal with the inevitable backlash against changes in the “how” and whether to push for greater changes in the “what.” In the near term, Deputy Secretary Shanahan is likely to finalize the FY 2020 budget, which implies a high likelihood of continuity with Secretary Mattis’ approach.

Q4: Who will be the next secretary of defense?

A4: Speculating about prospective presidential appointments is an obsession in Washington, and this is no different. The Washington Post had some rumors back in September. Some of the names mentioned were General Keane, former vice chief of the Army, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, businessman and former Treasury Department official David McCormick, and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.

Cancian: I find it hard to believe that the White House would appoint a sitting senator. That senator would need to be replaced, and the last time that that happened, the Alabama special election to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions who became the attorney general, the Republicans lost the seat. The Republican majority in the Senate is so thin that the administration is unlikely to take the risk.

General Keane has been retired long enough that he does not need special legislation to become secretary of defense and the president seems to like military people, although he has now fired or pushed out all of the generals (Flynn, Kelly, McMaster, Mattis) who were once so prominent in the administration.

Harrison: I think the next secretary is a major wildcard. It is not clear who among the defense elite within the Republican party would want this job since many of them are openly at odds with the president over the same issues that led Mattis to resign. This process of self-selection (or deselection) means that there is a good chance it will be someone who is more closely aligned with Trump’s worldview.

Hunter: Secretary Mattis seems to signal the direction of the Trump administration’s approach in his resignation letter. It seems reasonable to believe that the next secretary will be someone more philosophically aligned with the President’s America First agenda. This suggests a non-traditional pick from outside the core of the traditional military and foreign policy community. Such a pick is inherently hard to forecast. Sharp observers will be closely watching Fox and Friends in the coming weeks for people who come on to talk about the application of America First to national security policy.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Todd Harrison is the director of Defense Budget Analysis and the director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS. Andrew Hunter is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Todd Harrison

Todd Harrison

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis

Andrew Philip Hunter