Wednesday, September 11, 2019

"Not My Job"

To his credit, General James Mattis does not emphasize his former status as a member of the military, yet in an interview with PBS' Judy Woodruff on September 2 he remarked

I believe that when someone departs an Administration over policy disagreements, you have what the French call "a duty of reserve, a "devoir de reserve." I don't want to, on the outside, be making it more difficult for our Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and President, who have to deal with this very complex world. There will be a time when it's right for me to come out on strategy and policy disagreements (but not at this time).

Nine days later, the former Defense Secretary, this time at an appearance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said much the same thing. He commented

But there is a 700-year tradition in America about military officers not passing political judgments on our political masters. And that's the way we want it. We don't want the military mastering decisions in this country.

That would be valid if Mr. Mattis were still General Mattis, active military. However, he is now retired from the military and thus, like almost all of the rest of us, has no Commander-in-Chief. President Trump is merely President Trump, not Commander-in-Chief, to everyone not currently in the armed services. The (ex-) General continued

But there's also the sense when you look at that tradition that we, I believe when you leave a government, leave an Administration and you leave it over a matter of policy- the President was straightforward with me, I was straightforward with him. I put it out on a letter, that's all I have to say about it.

I had certain policy disagreements and now that I walked  out, the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, they are dealing with some very, very difficult issues. They don't need someone who was in there before, coming outside, no longer responsible and critiquing what's going on.

The American people do need that person now. It is precisely now that he has the freedom, the moral duty, and the ability to critique what is "going on." Mattis explains

You have right now over a million troops and tens of thousands of them are deployed overseas. Now what would they be thinking if the former Secretary of Defense was coming out making political assessments right now and particularly at a time when the political discussions are so corrosive?

They might be thinking "that's what we believe but while on active duty we cannot say what we want to about the President," who actually is their Commander-in-Chief and thus owed strict loyalty. Mattis, by contrast, owes his loyalty to law and to country, not to any political figure. He notes 

So I believe I've led a responsible life. I've done the best I can and I was in the Marine Corps for 40-odd years, I was in the US Marine Corps. I belonged to you, answerable to you, and I think right now, the French call it devoir de reserve. Doesn't that sound impressive that I would say in French? But it's a duty of quiet when you leave to allow those who carry this very heavy responsibility of protecting what I call America, this experiment that we try to keep alive.

I can not speak or understand French and therefore have a hard time confirming this. Nevertheless, this online conversation, for what it's worth, suggests that the "devoir de reserve" pertains to the responsibility of maintaining confidentiality while employed by the federal government. That no longer applies to Mattis.

Moreover, this "experiment that we try to keep alive" is probably the notion that the USA is not a people- French, British, Chinese, Sengalese, or whatever- but an idea. That idea- most often symbolized by the Statue of Liberty- is perhaps best encapsulated in e pluribus unum- "from many, one."  President Trump's hostile and bigoted remarks aside, consider policy. A quick glance at the cages on the border, an essential part of dividing members of one family from another in order to deter people from pursuing that idea, reveals that Donald Trump is hostile toward "this experiment that we try to keep alive."

Additionally, the suspicion that determination of human worthiness is based on skin color or ethnicity is hardly consoling. Then Mattis concluded this segment with

I don't want to do anything right now that our adversaries can interpret as a weakening the fabric of those who are out there right now, the diplomats, the intelligence agents, the military guys and gals who are out there right now defending the country. So I'm just going to stay quiet.

That's touching, especially the part about "intelligence agents" because the President

has privately said that foreign spies can damage relations with their host countries and undermine his personal relationships with their leaders, the sources said. The President "believes we shouldn't be doing that to each other," one former Trump administration official told CNN.

In addition to his fear such foreign intelligence sources will damage his relationship with foreign leaders, Trump has expressed doubts about the credibility of the information they provide. Another former senior intelligence official told CNN that Trump "believes they're people who are selling out their country."

Even in public, Trump has looked down on these foreign assets, as they are known in the intelligence community.

Of course, if James Mattis really wanted to stay quiet, he could have avoided writing a book, or at least going on an interview tour to hawk it. Still,  that's selling Mattis short. He did answer what he believed to be a call to duty, spending over 40 years in the military, so he deserves to be criticized for something more substantive than simply wanting to make money, a common human instinct.

Mere hours before Mattis took the stage in Chicago, Donald Trump revealed that one of the two most brutal dictators in the world held veto power over the President's appointment of a national security advisor: "And I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. And he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton." James Mattis should recognize dereliction of duty as a former general choosing to give strategic air cover to a President whose loyalty lies elsewhere than with the security of the nation.

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