National Security

Syria Should Prompt the Return of Mattis

Trump's decision to keep American troops on the ground might be otherwise beneficial.

Harold Hutchison · Mar. 14, 2019

The resignation last December of James Mattis as secretary of defense was a loss for the country. Mattis was more than instant credibility for President Donald Trump on military affairs; he was also an immensely motivational presence for certain countries. Well, to be more precise, their leaders.

The reason Trump’s gambit on North Korea worked so well in the first two years was because of Mattis. We got hostages out. The North Koreans didn’t launch as many missiles. Kim Jong-un even made concessions. Why? Because every leader in the Pacific Rim — including Kim — knew that if Kim misbehaved badly enough, “Mad Dog” Mattis would get angry. And Kim wouldn’t like it when “Mad Dog” Mattis got angry.

When President Trump announced plans to pull American troops from Syria, Mattis resigned. It was the honorable way to handle that sort of disagreement. But that also meant the motivational presence for keeping Kim to an acceptable level of misbehavior was also lost. Hence, Trump had to walk away from the summit in Vietnam.

But the disagreement occurred because of George W. Bush’s early mistakes in the War on Terror. We focused — rightly — on knocking out al-Qaida and the Taliban (both are still around, by the way). But what wasn’t done left Trump feeling he had been pushed into a choice of either continuing a pattern of overextending the military with deployments in the Middle East (and compromising our ability to deter Russia and China), preparing it to deter action by Russia and China, but at the cost of abandoning the Kurds and American allies in the region.

Now, we can only speculate as to whether the disagreement between Trump and Mattis was on which of the either/or options — or even if Mattis didn’t accept the notion that it was an either/or choice. The sad fact of the matter is that Bush’s mistakes — followed by Barack Obama’s reckless timetable-based strategy — placed America in a tough spot.

Now, there are some genuine differences of opinion on the Right regarding how Syria fits into the War on Terror. That includes debate on just how far we go in taking out radical Islamic jihadists, and even which groups should constantly be sweating the possibility that they will be tracked down and get an up-close look at a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (and other bombs) as the last thing they ever see in this life. Well, okay, there may also be the options of SEALs, Delta Force, or Hellfire missiles…

There is one major point to keep in mind. When it comes to the War on Terror, we need to remember that al-Qaida was responsible for 9/11, and the Taliban was complicit, both in providing al-Qaida a safe haven to plan that attack and then refusing to hand over the terrorists responsible. What they did warrants something on the level of a blood feud. The fact that al-Qaida developed spinoffs, which include ISIS, as well as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, among others, means we simply have more targets.

The decision to keep American troops in Syria, though, now means President Trump can try to reconcile with Secretary Mattis. While it might be hard for a man who has no shortage of belief in himself, this time, for the good of the country, if Trump can swallow his pride and work things out with Mattis and get him to agree to return to the Pentagon, America will be much better off.

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