James Mattis, the US secretary of defence and unparalleled advocate of strong relations with India from his post day after the Donald Trump abruptly declared the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.
Mattis, like many other Trump aides and advisers, had opposed the pullout and tried one last time to persuade the president to reverse his decision at a meeting at the White House in the afternoon. But he failed, as the president was not only in no mood to relent but had dug in and was punching back even at close allies who were opposing him on the pullout.
Mattis has been the most enthusiastic and influential supporter of ties with India in the Trump administration, according to several Indian and US officials who spoke to Hindustan Times off the record over the past many months.
“His departure is a loss, we lost a champion,” said an Indian official.
“This is through and through a Greek tragedy,” wrote Ashley Tellis, an Asia expert with think tank Carnegie, in an email response to a request for comments. “His departure is a big loss for the country: He was a towering center of sanity and the source of reassurance for America’s friends and allies.”
“With him goes the last great champion of strong US-India ties in this administration.”
Mattis had emerged as the strongest supporter of relations with India, especially after he urged lawmakers at a congressional hearing to amend a US law to grant India a waiver from sanctions targeting buyers of significant volumes of Russian military hardware.
The lawmakers agreed and changed the law — Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, better known by acronyms CAATSA — but a decision is still awaited.
Not for Secretary Mattis though. It was settled the issue for him. “We’ll sort out all those issues here today, and in the days ahead,” he told reporters during defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit recently and added, later, “We’ll work everything out, trust me.”
Later that day, Secretary Mattis hosted Minister Sitharaman at Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Asian Art for dinner that officials said was marked by personal touches from him that bore “testimony to his belief” in the relationship.
It was on Mattis’s watch that the Pacific Command of the US military was rechristened Indo-Pacific Command in a nod to growing ties with India and an acknowledgement of the increasing significance of India on the world stage and in America’s worldview, with China as a shared challenge.
Benjamin Schwartz, a former Pentagon official who dealt with ties with India, cautioned, however, against overestimating the impact of Mattis’s exit on ties with India. “Mattis was a strong backer for sure, but the geopolitics of Asia incline most US officials responsible for national security to see India as an important partner,” he wrote in an email response.
Trump announced Matti’s departure shortly after the defence secretary’s failed pitch for pullout reversal in a tweet. “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.” He went on to describe some of the secretary’s contributions and that he will leave in February. But he sought to portray his departure as a retirement, when it was anything but. Mattis, a four-star Marine corps general retired a long time ago.
This time, Mattis, 68, was resigning. The Pentagon set the record straight by releasing Mattis’s resignation letter shortly. “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote.
“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.” That’s a resignation, and over differences.
The two men had differed on an entire range of issues, from banning transgender troops to Trump’s Space Force to a French Bastille-Day style military parade. Earlier, when they were still on good terms, Mattis would simply slow-deal issues that he did not agree with. That was the time when the men met frequently, sometimes over dinner at the White House — over hamburgers and briefing books.
Mattis had then formed a group of senior Trump officials who were called the men in the room, who brought order and discipline to Trump’s chaotic administration, with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a long-time CEO of ExxonMobil, and John Kelly, another US military general who was secretary of homeland secretary. And then they began falling out of favor.
Tillerson was thrown out in March, while he was on an official visit to Africa, and Kelly was fired earlier this month as chief of staff. Many more went on their own or were forced out, in between, before and since — cabinet secretaries Tom Price and Scott Pruitt, ambassador to UN Nikki Haley, attorney general Jeff Sessions, National Security Adviser H R McMaster and interior secretary Ryan Zinke, And some, such as homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, are said to be standing in the doorway, waiting to be tipped over.
Turnover in the Trump administration has been high, record-breaking, in fact. Brookings, a leading US think tank, said in an October analysis, ”President Trump is breaking records.”
“Ten (or 83%) of the most senior-ranking White House advisers have departed, sparking a cascade of turnover in the junior ranks as well.” At this stage of the presidency, two years down, President Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989) had 59% turnover; George H W Bush (1989-1993) 17%; Bill Clinton (1993-2001) 58%; George W Bush (2001-2009) 17%; and Barack Obama (2009-2016) 41%, according to the study.