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Mattis resigning as Pentagon chief after clashes with Trump

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday after clashing with President Donald Trump over the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and after two years of deep disagreements over America’s role in the world.

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 sharply changing policies. He told Trump in a letter that he was leaving because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

His departure was immediately lamented by foreign policy hands and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who viewed the retired Marine general as a sober voice of experience in the ear of a president who had never held political office or served in the military. Even Trump allies expressed fear over Mattis’ decision to quit, believing him to be an important moderating force on the president.

“Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter ,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

Mattis in his letter noted his “core belief” that American strength is “inextricably linked” with its alliances and partnerships with other nations, a position seemingly at odds with the “America First” policy of the president.

The defense secretary also said China and Russia want to spread their “authoritarian model” and promote their interests at the expense of America and its allies. “That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense,” he wrote.

The announcement came a day after Trump surprised U.S. allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, and as he continues to consider cutting in half the American deployment in Afghanistan by this summer. It coincided with domestic turmoil as well, Trump’s fight with Congress over a border wall and a looming partial government shutdown.

Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria has been sharply criticized for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who may well face a Turkish assault once U.S. troops leave, and had been staunchly opposed by the Pentagon.

Mattis, in his resignation letter, emphasized the importance of standing up for U.S. allies — an implicit criticism of the president’s decision on this issue and others.

“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.

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.”

“Jim Mattis did a superb job as Secretary of Defense. But he cannot be expected to stand behind a President who disrespects our allies and ingratiates himself to our adversaries,” said William Cohen, who served as defense secretary under Bill Clinton and knows Mattis well.

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.

Mattis went to the White House Thursday afternoon to resign after failing to persuade the president to change his decision on withdrawing troops from Syria.

A U.S. official said that Mattis’ decision was his own, and not a “forced resignation.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Trump said a replacement would be chosen soon.

“The president’s national security team’s job is to give him advice and it’s the president’s job to make a decision,” said press secretary Sarah Sanders.

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 Trump’s assertion during the campaign that it did, and he voiced staunch support for traditional U.S. 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 U.S. efforts in the war-torn country.

The two also were divided on the future of the Afghanistan war, with Trump complaining from the first 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.

U.S. officials say there now is active planning in the Pentagon that would pull as many as half the 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by summer. They say no final decision has been made.

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.

More recently, Trump bypassed Mattis’ choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief, was Mattis’ top choice, but Trump chose Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of the Army

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 U.S. 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.

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Robert Burns contributed.

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Foreign Affairs

What if Iran, not Afghanistan or North Korea, was the reason John Bolton left the White House?

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What if Iran not Afghanistan or North Korea was the reason John Bolton left the White House

Speculation over the divide that eventually turned into an irreparable chasm between President Trump and his former National Security Advisor John Bolton has been focused on two places: Afghanistan and North Korea. The former is conspicuous because of timing; the White House has been in negotiations with the Taliban and Afghani leaders and recently canceled a meeting at Camp David before declaring withdrawal negotiations “dead.” The latter was referenced today by the President, who noted that Bolton’s invocation of the “Libyan Model” was part of the reason talks broke down between the United States and North Korea.

But recent reports that the President is considering relieving sanctions, reengaging in the Iran Nuclear Deal, and offering Iran a $15 billion line of credit seems to be the most likely scenario behind Bolton’s unexpected departure.

Trump Flirts With $15 Billion Bailout for Iran, Sources Say

President Donald Trump has left the impression with foreign officials, members of his administration, and others involved in Iranian negotiations that he is actively considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion credit line to the Iranians if Tehran comes back into compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Trump has in recent weeks shown openness to entertaining President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, according to four sources with knowledge of Trump’s conversations with the French leader. Two of those sources said that State Department officials, including Secretary Mike Pompeo, are also open to weighing the French proposal, which would effectively ease the economic sanctions regime that the Trump administration has applied on Tehran for more than a year.

If this is the case and the President starts to bend on Iran in this manner, it’s a huge mistake and makes Bolton’s ouster much more understandable. Bolton, perhaps more than any other current or former White House official, is vehemently opposed to any relief for Iran. If anything, Bolton has likely been calling for strikes against Iran since joining the White House earlier this year. He’s a hawk – way too hawkish for me in most cases – but he also understands better than most that Iran represents a real threat to our interests and allies as well as the United States itself. Despite their economic hardships, they remain the world’s most prominent state sponsor of terrorism.

They want to destroy America, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. They aren’t shy about these desires.

Now is not the time to be backing down to Iran’s demands. This is still in rumor stage, but if the White House does anything to help the Iranian government get back on its feet, it would be a tremendous mistake.

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Why John Bolton’s firing is great and awful at the same time

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Why John Boltons firing is great and awful at the same time

Two things are true while seemingly being contradictory. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is a patriotic American who wants to preserve the lives of our troops and citizens. He is also a neoconservative hawk who wants to put our men in harm’s way. How can these two things be?

The neoconservative wing of the Republican Party believes the best way to ensure the safety of our troops, our interests, and the interests of our allies is through strength. If that means taking out the enemy before they take us out, so be it. Bolton has been calling for preemptive strikes against Iran for over a decade. He has also opposed every proposed withdrawal of troops, including President Trump’s desire to remove troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Call me an isolationist, but I’m not one who enjoys having troops permanently stationed anywhere other than established bases within allied territories. It’s not that I disagree with Bolton’s desire to keep troops abroad, but those troops should not be stationed within hostile territory unless there are immediate battles to be fought. Occupations, police actions, and sheer presence for the sake of preventing others from inserting themselves are not proper uses of our armed forces, in my humble opinion, because they put our men and women at risk without a clear enemy to defend against.

For this reason, I think it’s great news that Bolton left.

Trump ousts National Security Adviser John Bolton, says they ‘disagreed strongly’ on policy

Bolton’s removal comes after the hawkish adviser was reportedly sidelined from high-level discussions about military involvement in Afghanistan, after opposing diplomatic efforts in the region.

“Simply put, many of Bolton’s policy priorities did not align with POTUS,” a White House official told Fox News on Tuesday.

While Trump announced a 4,000-troop increase in 2017 as part of an effort to break the stalemate in the country, he has been moving toward agreeing to a phased withdrawal of troops. Some 14,000 U.S. troops have remained in Afghanistan, advising and assisting Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.

But there’s a flip side to this argument, especially as it pertains to President Trump. Bolton offered a voice of reason that understood the implications of drawing down troops from various hotspots. Like I said, I’m not in favor of keeping troops where they don’t belong, but I’m also not in favor of removing troops prematurely. That was Bolton’s primary sticking point with the President. If Bolton wanted to keep troops out there too long, President Trump wanted to bring them home before it was time. The combination of the two perspectives made for good foreign policy decisions, which we saw after the President Tweeted last year that he’d be withdrawing immediately from Syria at the request of Turkey. It would have been a poor move, and his advisers slowed him down enough for preparations to be made properly.

This is why the White House needed John Bolton, Jim Mattis, or someone who will keep the President from making military mistakes on a whim. I didn’t have to agree with Bolton’s or Mattis’s policy ideas completely to appreciate their voice in the President’s ear. He wants things done, but his expert advisers are there to tell them when his desires do not align with our interests.

Overall, I think it’s a sad day for the White House and the nation to see John Bolton leave even if I don’t believe in his neoconservative perspectives. We need people in the President’s ear who will tell him the truth. There are plenty of yes-men there already.

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Trump says peace talks with Taliban are now ‘dead’

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Trump says peace talks with Taliban are now dead

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. peace talks with the Taliban are now “dead,” President Donald Trump declared Monday, one day after he abruptly canceled a secret meeting he had arranged with Taliban and Afghan leaders aimed at ending America’s longest war.

Trump’s remark to reporters at the White House suggested he sees no point in resuming a nearly yearlong effort to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, whose protection of al-Qaida extremists in Afghanistan prompted the U.S. to invade after the 9/11 attacks.

Asked about the peace talks, Trump said, “They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead.”

It’s unclear whether Trump will go ahead with planned U.S. troop cuts and how the collapse of his talks will play out in deeply divided Afghanistan.

In his remarks to reporters Monday, Trump said his administration is “looking at” whether to proceed with troop reductions that had been one element of the preliminary deal with the Taliban struck by presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

“We’d like to get out, but we’ll get out at the right time,” Trump said.

What had seemed like a potential deal to end America’s longest war unraveled, with Trump and the Taliban blaming each other for the collapse of nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

The insurgents are now promising more bloodshed, and American advocates of withdrawing from the battlefield questioned on Monday whether Trump’s decision to cancel what he called plans for a secret meeting with Taliban and Afghan leaders at the Camp David, Maryland, presidential retreat over the weekend had poisoned the prospects for peace.

“The Camp David ploy appears to have been an attempt to satisfy Trump’s obsession with carefully curated public spectacles — to seal the deal, largely produced by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators, with the president’s imprimatur,” said John Glaser director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Trump has been talking of a need to withdraw U.S. troops from the “endless war” in Afghanistan since his 2016 presidential campaign. And he said anew in a tweet on Monday, “We have been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and that was not meant to be the job of our Great Soldiers, the finest on earth.”

He added, without explanation, “Over the last four days, we have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years.”

There has been no evidence of a major U.S. military escalation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s weekend moves.

“When the Taliban tried to gain negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside of the country, President Trump made the right decision to say that’s not going to work,” Pompeo said Sunday.

Trump said he called off negotiations because of a recent Taliban bombing in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member, even though nine other Americans have died since June 25 in Taliban-orchestrated violence. But the emerging agreement had started unraveling days earlier after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani postponed his trip to Washington and the Taliban refused to travel to the U.S. before a deal was signed, according to a former senior Afghan official.

As Trump’s re-election campaign heats up, his quest to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan remains unfulfilled — so far.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Jonathan Hoffman declined Monday to comment on the outlook for the administration’s plan to reduce the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan to 8,600.

Democrats said Trump’s decision to nix a deal with the Taliban was evidence that he was moving too quickly to get one. Far from guaranteeing a cease-fire, the deal only included Taliban commitments to reduce violence in Kabul and neighboring Parwan province, where the U.S. has a military base.

The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government it sees as illegitimate and a puppet of the West. So, the Trump administration tried another approach, negotiating with the Taliban first to get a deal that would lead to Taliban talks with Afghans inside and outside the government.

Some administration officials, including national security adviser John Bolton, did not back the agreement with the Taliban as it was written, a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations said. They didn’t think the Taliban can be trusted. Bolton advised the president to draw down the U.S. force to 8,600 — enough to counter terror threats — and “let it be” until a better deal could be hammered out, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Khalilzad, the lead U.S. negotiator, recently announced that he had reached an agreement in principle with the Taliban. Under the deal, the U.S. would withdraw about 5,000 U.S. troops within 135 days of signing. In exchange, the insurgents agreed to reduce violence and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for global terror attacks, including from a local Islamic State affiliate and al-Qaida.

Pompeo said the Taliban agreed to break with al-Qaida — something that past administrations have failed to get the Taliban to do.

The insurgent group hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the 9/11 attacks in 2001. After the attacks, the U.S. ousted the Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2000.

But problems quickly emerged. On Thursday, a second Taliban car bomb exploded near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, killing 12 people including a U.S. soldier. Khalilzad abruptly returned to Doha, Qatar, for more negotiations with the Taliban. He has since been recalled to Washington.

It’s unclear if the talks will resume because the Taliban won’t trust future deals they negotiate with the U.S. if they think Trump might then change course, according to the former senior Afghan official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The official, who has discussed the peace process with U.S. and Afghan officials, said Khalilzad’s team was not aware of Trump’s plans to tweet the end of the talks Saturday evening.

Trump’s suspension of the negotiations “will harm America more than anyone else,” the Taliban said in a statement.

The former Afghan official said the deal fell apart for two main reasons. First, the Taliban refused to sign an agreement that didn’t state the end date for a complete withdrawal of American forces. That date was to be either November 2020, the same month of the U.S. presidential election, or January 2021, he said.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement was to be followed by Taliban talks with Afghans inside and outside the government to chart a political future for the country. Ghani told Khalilzad that putting a withdrawal date in the agreement would undermine the all-Afghan discourse before it began.

Secondly, the U.S. was unsuccessful in convincing Ghani to postpone the Afghan presidential election set for Sept. 28, the official said. The U.S. argued that if the elections were held and Ghani won, his opponents and other anti-Ghani factions would protest the results, creating a political crisis that would make the all-Afghan talks untenable. Other disagreements included why the deal did not address the Taliban’s linkages to Pakistan and prisoner-hostage exchanges, the official said.

___

Associated Press writers Cara Anna and Rahim Faiez in Kabul; Jonathan Lemire in Washington, and Julie Walker with AP Radio contributed to this report.

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