Like in baseball, the military has some unwritten rules. One of the most important is that junior officers should heed the advice of their senior enlisted personnel as gospel. Although junior officers technically outrank all enlisted members, outranking is not the same as “out-knowing.” When it comes to foreign policy, President Trump should defer to those who know better.
One of those individuals is former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Also a former general in the Marine Corps, Mattis has been an instrumental force in the war against terror. When picked by Trump to head the Defense Department, Mattis was one of the few people who had the credibility and sheer power of personality to balance Trump’s instinctual style of leadership.
However, even a Marine Corps general is apparently no match for Trump’s ego. In a much-publicized split, Mattis resigned from the top defense post. The reason? He clashed with Trump on key foreign policy issues, including the original Syrian pullout announcement. Further, Mattis sharply disagreed with the President on rejecting traditional U.S. allies.
Now, we’re starting to see the consequences when leaders mismanage their subordinates. Ignoring all advice from foreign policy experts, Trump removed all American troops from Syria. And before doing this, he convinced Syrian Kurds – longstanding allies of the U.S. – to dismantle their defensive fortifications along the border with Turkey.
We all know what happened next. But the sad part was this was all avoidable.
Ignorance Sparked Foreign Policy Disaster
To briefly play devil’s advocate, I can appreciate why Trump pulled out of Syria. As he stated throughout his 2016 campaign, he didn’t want the U.S. involved in foreign wars. It’s a sentiment that many on right-leaning political outlets support.
But here’s the harsh reality: once we’re involved, we must finish what we initially set out to do. And that’s especially the case when you’re dealing with the Middle East. Obviously, the region features historical conflicts that go back centuries. Add in the growing threat of a terrorist organization like ISIS, and this is a no-brainer: you cannot pull out before the mission is accomplished.
But without Mattis to guide the President away from disaster, we have no one else with any backbone. Thus, Trump had himself a green light to shape our foreign policy according to his world view.
Notably, this is one of the few issues where Trump does not have strong support from his base. And it goes to show you that no one is above traditional decorum and common sense.