Julian Borger – Guardian Dec 21, 2018
James Mattis has resigned as US defence secretary, pointing to differences with Donald Trump over the treatment of allies and the US approach to “malign actors and strategic competitors” on the world stage.
His resignation comes a day after Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Syria, and amid reports he has also ordered the return of half the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as well.
Mattis was reported to have gone to the White House on Thursday afternoon in an effort to persuade Trump to agree to a gradual withdrawal of troops from Syria and to leave a residual force of a few hundred, diplomatic sources said. He also opposed Trump’s plans to halve the US contingent in Afghanistan. His resignation suggests those appeals were rejected.
Mattis said he would stay in office until 28 February, to allow time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed by the Senate. His departure is likely to alarm US allies in Europe who saw Mattis as the embodiment of continuity in US defence policy in an otherwise erratic and often radical administration.
Mattis had doggedly stressed the importance of allies, and of Nato in particular, in the face of outspoken scepticism from the president. His resignation letter emphasised that theme as well as the need to remain “resolute and unambiguous” in the approach to China and Russia.
“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,” Mattis wrote. “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.
“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” he wrote, making clear he was referring primarily to China and Russia.
“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,” Mattis said, before making it clear he no longer believed the president shared those convictions.
“Because you have the right to have a secretary of defence 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. The letter offers no words of praise for the president.