On December 20, James Mattis announced he was resigning as Defense secretary, but would stick around until the end of February to ensure a smooth transition. This was the responsible move, as allies in Asia, Europe and the Middle East — not to mention the D.C. establishment — looked to Mattis to maintain consistency and continuity in American foreign policy under President Trump. But just days later, Trump revealed on Twitter that he was pushing Mattis out early, moving Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan into the role on an acting basis as of January 1.
Sure enough, there’s already been a serious uptick in odd U.S. foreign policy moves and anonymous leaking about internal deliberations — though it’s hard to say whether this is a symptom of Mattis’s departure or the general chaos that afflicts the Trump administration.
Syria policy — the issue that reportedly prompted Mattis’s resignation — has continued to swing wildly. In December, Trump proclaimed that a complete pull-out of U.S. troops from Syria was imminent. “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Trump said. “We won.” U.S. officials walked that back to a conditions-based withdrawal — i.e. no definite exit date — only to have the Pentagon announce last Friday that U.S. forces have already “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria,” without offering much detail.
According to CNN, military commanders warned Trump during his December 26 visit to Iraq that contrary to his claims, ISIS has not been entirely defeated in Syria. Tragically, that point was underscored on Wednesday when the terror group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting an American military convoy in northern Syria; 19 people were killed, including four Americans. Yet Vice President Mike Pence made no mention of the attack or the deaths of U.S. service members in remarks to diplomats a short time later, reiterating that “the caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”
Syria isn’t the only area where major administration policies appear to be flailing. New satellite-imagery analysis confirmed, again, this month, that North Korea has not slowed the development of its nuclear weapons program even slightly since Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un in June. But that didn’t stop Trump from responding to Kim’s reportedly fawning New Year’s missive with a letter of his own, and preparing to welcome North Korea’s senior negotiator to Washington this weekend to make plans for a second Trump-Kim meeting.
Then, of course, there are Trump’s perplexing moves surrounding Russia. The Treasury Department is still trying to explain why it is lifting sanctions on an oligarch-friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin — especially as a former U.S. marine languishes in a Moscow jail after a mysterious arrest late last month on espionage charges. The administration has had very little to say about that case.
Meanwhile, someone — or several people — in the administration decided it was a good time to share some juicy information about Trump’s curious moves related to his meetings with Putin — specifically, as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, he’s been very protective about what was discussed, going as far as confiscating interpreters’ notes. A day later, the New York Times had its own scoop on Trump’s strange foreign policy opinions, reporting that he had multiple discussions with his team about pulling out of NATO.
One possible explanation: With moderating influences in the Trump administration failing to make any progress with the president himself, they’re leaking to the media to get their message out — and their opponents are busily fighting back. Earlier this week, conservative Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center published a Post op-ed titled “John Bolton Is Under Attack.” The defense of Bolton drew pushback from other conservatives, including proud isolationist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Washington hasn’t seen intrigue at this level since Henry Kissinger’s famous feuds with Cabinet colleagues in the 1970s. Kissinger’s came with just as much cavalierness for human rights and democracy, but fewer leaks of intelligence and more concrete policy achievements.
So now, rather than Mattis, we’re left with an acting secretary of Defense who’s declared that the Pentagon should not be the “Department of No” (incredibly, Shanahan was responding to the proposal for a Space Force when he said this). But funnily enough, the noes are piling up from rumored candidates to replace Mattis on a permanent basis. Perhaps they’re turned off by the chaos, or the areas where Trump has actually been rather consistent: his opposition to NATO, his sympathy for autocrats, and his belief in a military that is used readily, but not tactically — not to gain lasting victories or support negotiating objectives, but to impress his domestic supporters. Republicans who chose to ignore those views and join the administration, believing they could convert Trump or work around him to promote a more conservative internationalism, are feeling beleaguered.
Members of Congress — including a significant number of Republicans — have tried to step up to shore up NATO and push back on Russia. But Congress doesn’t decide where troops are stationed; it has little latitude to respond to Russian threats and intimidation; and arguably, the only thing worse than a policy one disagrees with is a policy that is frozen and fought-over, teaching friends and foes alike that the United States can’t get its act together. Whether you favor troops staying or going in Syria, or the U.S. playing a larger or smaller role in Europe, the prospect of American troops sitting rudderless as other actors scheme around them should unnerve you. The trouble with making American foreign policy unclear and unreliable is that nobody wins — except, perhaps, Vladimir Putin.