I have been criticizing the choice of Jim Mattis for SecDef since he was chosen. I thought it was bad for civilian control of the military to have someone so recently retired from the armed forces to serve as primary overseer of the US military, especially with Congress doing a lousy job of late doing its job in this area. Yes, he was more of an adult than anyone else, but that is why I called it the tyranny of low expectations--that with all the rest of Trump's choices sucking so very much, folks were enthused to accept a choice that, while bad for civilian control, would be better than what could have been. And now we will see how right these folks may have been, sigh, as Tom Cotton or someone equally awful will now get the second most important position in the chain of command.
To be clear, Mattis's impact was always overrated. Trump could and did ignore his advice and overruled him repeatedly. People put a lot of weight on Mattis having much influence but only because of wishful thinking. When Mattis would travel to Europe to reassure the folks there that the US would show up in a crisis, they should not have believed him since Trump is the key actor in whether the US supports or blocks the invoking of Article V of the NATO treaty--an attack upon one equals an attack upon is not automatic.
Trump decided to pull out troops out of Syria over Mattis's objections. His next moves in Afghanistan were likely over Mattis's objections. Which means that Mattis objecting is not a huge impediment. Mattis also didn't stop Trump from to kicking out/keeping out immigrants and trans people out of the armed forces. The courts have played a much greater role.
As a SecDef, he was a general. He didn't do many briefings, and the Pentagon restricted info. So much so that when folks wondered this week what was achieved in Syria, there was little news to build upon--keeping things quiet also meant keeping things confusing. While I am a fan of the Joint Staff since they socialized me so very well in 2001-2002, ceding heaps of policy influence to them was probably not a great thing. Which wars has the US de-escalated? Which wars have escalated? Hint: most did the latter with more bombs dropped on Afghanistan the past two years and more civilian casualties. While the Niger mess could have happened under any government, it does seem that delegating down has created a permissive environment for folks to push the limits and do more than they were supposed to, creating significant risks.
Yet Mattis will be missed by the example he set. At the cabinet meeting where all of the secretaries offered up their compliments/sucking up to Trump, Mattis stood out by not doing so. That did matter. His resignation letter was quite clear on that score as well as on valuing allies, so he sent a clear message.
Will we miss Mattis? Sure, but he was overrated. I thought the Europeans lost their wishful thinking about his role last summer at the NATO summit. Now, Americans and others are losing their illusions about his ability to restrain Trump. What this really signals is that Trump is more willing than ever to rely on his "gut" than on the experts. It was always thus, but more so now. And that is not good, since Trump's instincts are always, always awful. I did argue that leaving Syria was not entirely bad--that forever wars have to end and declaring defeat (calling it victory) is necessary. Mattis was never going to stop Trump from doing something truly awful--he was only going to be resigning in protest. And now we are here.
Folks have floated a bunch of names to replace Mattis, and they are all very bad. The only hope we have is, alas, shirking. DoD is the hardest agency to run, and the military is very good at slow rolling and doing other things to avoid doing what the civilians want. We will see more of that, and we will see a sharper civ-mil divide if the new SecDef and the new people brought into the Office of Secretary of Defense try to impose their will on the US armed forces. Which means we will be rooting for the military to avoid or deny civilian control--which is really bad.
So, the tyranny of low expectations has become more tyrannical. And inevitable given that Mattis could not stop Trump from being Trump.