WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is stepping down from his post, President Donald Trump announced Thursday, after the retired Marine general clashed with the president over a troop drawdown in Syria and Trump’s go-it-alone stance in world affairs.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February after two tumultuous years struggling to soften and moderate the president’s hardline and sometimes abruptly changing policies.
The announcement came a day after Trump surprised US allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria, and as he continues to consider shrinking the American deployment in Afghanistan.
In his resignation letter, Mattis alluded to disagreements with Trump as the reason for his departure.
“Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense 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,” Mattis wrote.
Trump said on Twitter that a new secretary will be named soon.
Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria has been criticized for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who may well face a Turkish assault once US troops leave. Analysts also say Iran may take advantage of a power vacuum to further entrench itself in Syria, complicating Israeli efforts to keep Tehran from gaining a foothold near its border.
Mattis had warned that an early withdrawal from Syria would be a “strategic blunder.”
Mattis, in his resignation letter, emphasized the importance of standing up for US allies in an implicit criticism of the president’s decision.
“While the U.S. 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,” Mattis wrote.
“My view 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 on these issues.”
On Twitter, Trump thanked Mattis for his service.
“During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations.”
General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years. During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
Mattis’s departure was quickly lamented by foreign policy hands on both sides of the aisle, who viewed him as a sober voice of experience in the ear of a president who had never before held political office or served in the military.
Last year, Republican Sen. Bob Corker — a frequent Trump critic — said Mattis, along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were helping “separate our country from chaos.”
Tillerson was fired early this year. Kelly is to leave the White House in the coming days.
“This is scary,” reacted Senate Intelligence committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., on Twitter. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”
Mattis’ departure has long been rumored, but officials close to him have insisted that the battle-hardened retired Marine would hang on, determined to bring military calm and reason to the administration’s often chaotic national security decisions and soften some of Trump’s sharper tones with allies.
Opponents of Mattis, however, have seen him as an unwanted check on Trump.
A White House official said Mattis informed Trump of his decision to leave the administration Thursday afternoon.
At the start of the Trump administration, the president had gushed about his respect for Mattis, repeatedly calling him “Mad Dog,” despite Mattis’ own public insistence that the moniker was never his. Instead, his nickname for years was CHAOS, which stood for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Suggestion,” and reflected Mattis’ more cerebral nature.
The two quickly clashed on major policy decisions.
During his first conversations with Trump about the Pentagon job, Mattis made it clear that he disagreed with his new boss in two areas: He said torture doesn’t work, despite Trumps assertion during the campaign that it did, and he voiced staunch support for traditional US international alliances, including NATO, which Trump repeatedly criticized.
Mattis was credited by some in the administration for blocking an executive order that would have reopened CIA interrogation “black sites.” Trump has said the Pentagon chief convinced him it wasn’t necessary to bring back banned torture techniques like waterboarding.
En route to his first visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Mattis bluntly rebuffed Trump’s assertion that America might take Iraqi oil as compensation for US efforts in the war-torn country.
The two also were initially divided on the future of the Afghanistan war, with Trump complaining about its cost and arguing for withdrawal. Mattis and others ultimately persuaded Trump to pour additional resources and troops into the conflict to press toward a resolution.
Trump also chafed at the Pentagon’s slow response to his order to ban transgender people from serving in the military. That effort has stalled due to multiple legal challenges.
The Pentagon has appeared to be caught off guard by a number of Trump policy declarations, often made through Twitter. Those include plans that ultimately fizzled to have a big military parade this month and the more recent decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the Southwest border.
Mattis has determinedly kept a low public profile, striving to stay out of the news and out of Trump’s line of fire.
Those close to him have repeatedly insisted that he would not quit, and would have to either be fired or die in the job. But others have noted that a two-year stint as defense chief is a normal and respectable length of service.
Born in Pullman, Washington, Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, later earning a history degree from Central Washington University. He was commissioned as an officer in 1972. As a lieutenant colonel, he led an assault battalion into Kuwait during the first U.S. war with Iraq in 1991.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mattis commanded the Marines who launched an early amphibious assault into Afghanistan and established a US foothold in the Taliban heartland. As the first wave of Marines moved toward Kandahar, Mattis declared, “The Marines have landed, and now we own a piece of Afghanistan.”
Two years later, he helped lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003 as the two-star commander of the 1st Marine Division. As a four-star, he led Central Command from 2010 until his retirement in 2013.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.