Mattis Was A Stabilizing Force To Trump Administration, Flournoy Says
NOEL KING, HOST:
"You have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours." That's a direct quote from the resignation letter that Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent to President Trump yesterday. Mattis will leave his post in February. His resignation comes as the president plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan significantly and to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria.
Michele Flournoy is with me now. She served as undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration. And she was offered the job of serving as Mattis' deputy secretary in this administration, but she declined. Good morning.
MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good morning.
KING: How concerned should the country be that the secretary of defense is stepping down right now?
FLOURNOY: I think we should be very concerned. Jim Mattis brought a lot of experience and perspective to the job and to a president who has - is known for his unpredictability and his impulsiveness and his rash decisions. So Secretary Mattis brought a lot of ballast to the system, reassuring our allies and frankly doing a lot to reassure the men and women who serve in uniform.
KING: Mr. Mattis announced his resignation almost immediately after the president announced withdrawals of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. General Jack Keane, who's close to Mattis, said this to my colleague Mary Louise Kelly yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JACK KEANE: But I would assume, in thinking about it, that the decisions on Syria and Afghanistan, in terms of withdrawing our forces and the strategic implications that both of those events would have, would be factors.
KING: Do you think those two actions by the president affected this decision by Mattis?
FLOURNOY: Absolutely. I think Jim Mattis is a very principled person. He has a very clear-eyed perspective on our adversaries. And I think he was probably very - I know he argued against those decisions because the withdrawal from Syria without any kind of stabilization plan will mean that ISIS will almost certainly resurge. And it plays right into the hands of Assad and Russia and Iran, our enemies.
So it's - it's a terrible decision. And in Afghanistan, the decision is both ignoring conditions on the ground but also would be bringing down our leverage precisely at the time when we're trying to negotiate a peace deal. So I think - I think it's pretty clear that this is a resignation on principle.
KING: And so I guess that helps to answer another question, which is why might Secretary Mattis not stay on in the administration with that cool head that he's famous for and maybe try to convince the president to reconsider some of these policy plans?
FLOURNOY: Well, I think every senior official, when they advise the president and the president decides to go a different way, has to make a decision. Is this something that I can live with - it's not a fundamental issue of principle or an issue where I think that the interests of the United States are going to be damaged? Or is this something that is so fundamental and such a profound mistake that I feel like I can't personally be involved in carrying it out? And I think, obviously, Secretary Mattis thought that these decisions fall into that latter category.
KING: One of President Trump's campaign promises was to untangle the United States from some of these longstanding conflicts in the Middle East. Here's White House adviser Stephen Miller talking about that yesterday on CNN Wolf - with Wolf Blitzer.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
STEPHEN MILLER: What I'm talking about, Wolf, is the big picture of a country that through several administrations had an absolutely catastrophic foreign policy that cost trillions and trillions of dollars and thousands of thousands of lives and made the Middle East more unstable and more dangerous.
KING: What's your sense of how Secretary Mattis might respond to that line of argument, that some of these conflicts have just gone on too long, and they've cost the United States too much?
FLOURNOY: Well, there's no one who understands the costs of these wars more than Secretary Mattis. He's been very clear that he doesn't believe that the U.S. military should be the world's policeman. But how we draw down matters. We learned that lesson in Iraq. If you draw down precipitously and without a clear strategy for - to stabilize your gains, you can create a vacuum. And in this case, the worry is that ISIS will return in that vacuum in Syria, and we will benefit Iran and Russia and to the great detriment, not only of our own interests, but those of allies like Israel.
So the way this was done, without a strategy, you know, to stabilize the situation and without any consultation of the allies and the partners that have fought alongside us and sacrificed alongside us, I think - I think it sort of qualifies as foreign policy malpractice. And I imagine that Secretary Mattis just couldn't be a part of that.
KING: What does his resignation signal to our allies? You mentioned Israel. There is also, of course, the Kurds, who have been fighting alongside the United States in Syria. What is this telegraphing to them?
FLOURNOY: Well, unfortunately, I think it sends a signal that the United States, under this administration, is not a reliable partner, that when we - you know, we've asked countries and forces on the ground, like the Kurds, to literally put their lives on the line to pursue a shared objective, like defeating ISIS.
And then we turn around when the president decides he wants to change the headline, you know, and we reverse our policy with no notice, with no consultation and with no real plan for how we're going to, you know, support them or ensure we stabilize our gains. So I think it sends a terrible signal of unreliability that we will have to work very, very hard for many administrations to correct.
KING: What are your thoughts about a potential successor? And even if you can't give me specific names, I'm wondering, what kind of qualities do you want to see in the next defense secretary, given what we know about how the Trump administration works?
FLOURNOY: I think the first thing is someone with deep experience with the military instruments and with broad, you know, foreign policy and U.S. leadership because the president needs people with experience around him because he himself does not have experience in this area and doesn't seem to have the judgment in this area.
The second is someone who will speak truth to power, that, you know, is not just going to toe the line but actually tells the president what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear when it comes to protecting American interests and putting our - you know, troops in harm's way in the service of those interests.
KING: Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy and is currently co-founder at WestExec. That's a strategic advisory firm. Thank you so much for joining us.
FLOURNOY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.