The retirement of US Defense Secretary James Mattis raises fears that a voice of prudence and professionalism will be absent from Donald Trump's cabinet. Photo: AFP
The retirement of US Defense Secretary James Mattis raises fears that a voice of prudence and professionalism will be absent from Donald Trump's cabinet. Photo: AFP

Allies from the Kurdish zone in Syria to Australia are left questioning US credibility, the Japanese/South Korea bulwark in Northeast Asia is rapidly imploding and Vladimir Putin is applauding as US President Donald Trump pulled out of Syria and lost one of his most respected cabinet members in quick succession.

On December 20, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, a former US Marine general, announced that he was leaving Trump’s cabinet. The resignation will take effect in late February. The move had not been unexpected, but differences of opinion on strategic issues and approaches appear to have left Mattis with no other option.

“Our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” said Mattis in his two-page resignation letter. He made clear that the negative and often personal attacks on the leaders of allied nations by Trump, and the detrimental impact had on key alliances which had stood firm for decades, was unacceptable.

The straw that broke the camel’s back appears to have been Trump’s surprise announcement to pull the 2,200 US troops in Syria out. Mattis announced his resignation the day after Trump made that announcement. The US vacuum leaves the Kurds – staunch allies of the US in the fight against ISIS –  to a very uncertain fate.

“The resignation has been building over policy differences and the immediate reason was the announcement to pullout from Syria,” Professor of National Security Affairs and Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group Terry Roehrig at the US Naval War College,  told Asia Times. “Turkey has warned of military operations against the Kurds in Syria and soon after Trump’s announcement to pull out, the Turkish Defense Minister said the Kurdish fighters would, ‘be buried in the ditches they dug.’”

Fear and loathing

Pundits are aghast. “This is yet another reason not to depend on the US under an erratic Trump who delights in pulling the rug out from under friends and allies,” seethed Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.

“Mattis was a source of rationality, strategic thinking, and responsibility to US troops, allies and friends, something that the impulsive, unstructured, and irresponsible president lacks,” added Professor William Brooks of the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.

With Chief of Staff John Kelly’s and now Mattis’s departures, Trump is “free of advisers who seek to contain and control his isolationist bent and chaos-sowing decisions,” said Brooks. “The decisions to pull US troops out of Syria, and reportedly out of Afghanistan next, are politically motivated, based on campaign promises to his political base, and have no relation to US national strategic interests,” Brooks said.

“Foreign policy is whatever the president is angry about,” Professor Tom Nichols, an expert on foreign policy and national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told a US  audience during a live MSNBC TV “Morning Joe” interview on December 21,

Even the staid Wall Street Journal was taken aback by the way in which Trump abruptly changed the landscape in the Middle East without consulting senior US military officers.

“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, is widely reported to have not been consulted” on the Syrian pullout,” the WSJ editorialized. “Withdrawing those 2,000 American[ troops from the Middle East is a significant act for which allies in the region and elsewhere needed a decent interval to prepare. Mr. Trump gave them none. The decision, which emerged after Mr. Trump’s phone call with Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did earn public praise from one big beneficiary – Russia’s Vladimir Putin.”

Key allies are now faced with the possibility of more gyrations and unpredictable course corrections.

Asian implications

Japan and South Korea – the two Northeast Asian democracies that Washington would like to see tightly aligned against China and North Korea, but which are frequently at diplomatic loggerheads over historical issues – need a firm hand at the US helm.

Amid multiple diplomatic and legal divisions, an extremely dangerous incident took place on Friday, when a South Korean destroyer commander in the Sea of Japan locked his vessel’s target acquisition radar onto a Japanese patrol aircraft operating in the same area, sparking a protest from Tokyo.

The incident happened just a few hours after Mattis presented his letter of resignation.

“Mattis brought order, stability, and a clear-eyed appreciation of the importance of US allies in the region,” Roehrig said. “Alliances are not about US charity; they are essential to advancing US interests and maintaining global peace and stability.”

Although nicknamed “Mad Dog,” the ex-general had been a voice of prudence and a restraint on Trump – who, prior to this year’s surprise rapprochement with North Korea, had been shaping up for a fight with the nuclear-armed state.

“Mattis understood the disaster of using military force against North Korea during the days of ‘fire and fury,’” said Roehrig. “He acted as a brake to ensure that the dangers and risks were clearly understood.”

The decision to withdraw from Syria, along with the departure of Mattis, is spreading immediate ripples across the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that the US, Japan, and Australia have been pursuing.

An Australian MP quickly called attention to how unreliable the US had become, suggesting Canberra needs to adopt new measures which guaranteed its security.

“Trump will remain preoccupied with North Korea and China, trying to restart the stalled negotiations with Pyongyang, and playing trade and corporate espionage hardball with China,” said Brooks. “Hopefully, the new Pentagon chief will not upset the status quo with America’s allies in the region and pay lip-service at least to what Mattis had laid down as the foundation for the Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

According to Brooks, there are real regional risks in Trump’s impetuosity.

He could decide to withdraw troops from South Korea to win concessions from North Korea, or cut US forces in Japan, as a cost cutting measure. “Under Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ policy, optimistic scenarios for either the Middle East or East Asia seem nowhere in sight,” Brooks added.

Who’s next in firing line?

Brooks worries that “only a flunky will likely now offer to take the thankless jobs” that Kelly and Mattis vacated. He warned of the dangers of Trump picking as his new Pentagon chief “…a loyalist lacking the qualities that distinguished Mattis in an administration of lackeys and political hacks.”

“Who would want to [take the position]?” asked Kingston. “This is a nightmare carnival show and people of integrity won’t want to be complicit.”

Currently there is global unease about the ultra-hardline stance taken by National Security Advisor John Bolton. Concerns also hover over the the independence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seen in some quarters as a “yes man” for Trump.

Neither Brooks nor Roehrig would hazard a guess on Mattis’s replacement. A list of top prospects emerged months ago and has remained relatively unchanged.

Retired US Army General Jack Keane, a frequent national security commentator on Fox News, was once top of the list, but has said openly that he has no plans to return to public service.

Others include US Senators Tom Cotton and  hardline Trump supporter Lindsey Graham, as well as US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan also seems to have been elevated of late in terms of his possible selection for the post.

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