As Gen. (ret.) Jim Mattis transformed into Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, many across Washington, the country, and the world were relieved. Here is a man with almost unmatched experience in military affairs who can, we are told, provide some stability to the erratic hand steering the ship of state — that of President Donald Trump. I have always been an admirer of Mattis, if not a member of the cult, and believed that in a normal world, he would be an excellent choice for secretary of defense.
But we are not in a normal world.
From the time Mattis was mooted, I have been worried that Trump and his inner circle would exploit Mattis’ pristine brand to get away with things they might not otherwise have the political cover to get away with. If you agree this is a fair concern, then Trump’s stop at the Pentagon yesterday should have, at the very least, fazed you.
Trump crossed the Potomac and visited the Pentagon to watch Vice President Mike Pence swear in Mattis as secretary of defense and to sign two executive orders. The second of the two actions ends immigration from Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and Libya — including re-entry of existing green card-holders — and indefinitely suspends the admission of refugees from Syria, the vast majority of whom have been women and children.
Standing over Trump’s left shoulder as he signed this order was Jim Mattis. This all unfolded in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. As Trump signed these orders, he sat in front of the hall’s large mockups of our nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. This medal is awarded for valor in combat. All of its recipients put themselves at mortal risk so that others might live and accomplish the mission at hand. Many gave what Abraham Lincoln described as “the last full measure of devotion.” The medal honors sacrifice and the elevation of the mission and the people to your left and right above all.
After Trump signed the immigration order, he handed the folder to Mattis and shook his hand. Mattis held it. They both smiled.
Already, one day after it was signed, the order is keeping translators, who served at great personal risk alongside American forces, out of the country and tearing families apart. It is likely a matter of time until this affects a translator who worked with a unit that Mattis commanded. And even if that does not happen, it seems difficult to see how this decision squares with the values represented by the Medal of Honor. From the CIA’s Memorial Wall to the Hall of Heroes, Trump seems intent on tarnishing the sacrifices of our heroes.
Thus, within minutes of his swearing in, Trump began exploiting Mattis just as I feared. This is not to ignore the good that Mattis is doing in reassuring allies in Europe and Asia who are anxious over the direction of U.S. strategy. But that does not absolve Mattis of responsibility for whatever else happens. He may not control it, but he is now a central part of it. The order was signed in the building Mattis runs and — as Trump intended — Mattis is in all of the pictures.
This is, we are told, the central dilemma of public service under Trump. Do you serve and try to mitigate the damage, knowing all the while that you are complicit in whatever happens? Or do you resign or refuse to join and, in doing so, forfeit the opportunity to influence decisions? If you prefer the first option, you might reply that it is unfair to expect Mattis to make Trump a different man on every issue. But that is exactly my point. Mattis and his supporters — and I consider myself among them — may hope that this grizzled “warrior monk” can create an island of stability on the Potomac during the next four years. But at the end of the day, Trump will continue to exploit Mattis’ reputation to provide political cover for dishonorable actions.
In other words, Trump will still be Trump. Mattis cannot change that. And he cannot save us. He can only choose to be a part of it. Or not.
Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.
Image: DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr