Mattis defies Trump on Syria. Is his job now in danger?
Reports that there is tension between Mattis and his boss over a potential US military strike in response to the April 7 gas attack in eastern Ghouta have led to speculation that the Pentagon chief may face a similar fate as Rex Tillerson, who was pushed out of the State Department last month. Tillerson's dismissal was motivated, at least in part, by disagreements with President Donald Trump on key policy issues.
Mattis' more level-headed approach to Syria could threaten his job security down the road, but it's unlikely that Trump will replace him anytime soon, Philip Giraldi, a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer of the CIA, told RT.
"I think there clearly is friction between Mattis and the president," Giraldi said. While Trump may like to replace Mattis, "at this point, with the tension going on Syria and elsewhere, he's not in a position to do that yet."
Jim Jatras, a former US diplomat and GOP Senate policy adviser, said that Trump still respects Mattis and the dispute likely won't affect their relationship in the long term.
"The professional military are going to be much more cautious here than some of the political leadership, especially if there have been military-to-military consultations with the Russians. I think the American military take it very, very seriously what the consequences could be, if there's a strike in Syria," Jatras said. "And that's being communicated to Mattis. So I think that Mattis is speaking with the voice of the professional military. And that is something that Trump is going to respect."
Jatras added that it was "pretty sad" that the most reasonable person advising the president was nicknamed "Mad Dog."
Mattis on Thursday appeared to put the brakes on Trump's incendiary Twitter taunts aimed at Syria and Russia. Speaking to members of the House Armed Services Committee about a potential US response to the incident, Mattis said he wanted to find a way to "stop the murder of innocent people," while also avoiding a dangerous military escalation.
"On a strategic level, it's how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that," Mattis told the lawmakers, likely referring to Moscow's repeated warnings that striking Syria could have "grave consequences."
Only a day earlier, US President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that US missiles are coming to Syria – and Russia should "get ready."
The glaring contrast between the two statements did not go unnoticed by members of the Armed Services Committee.
"When the president of the United States says these missiles will be coming, that sounds to me and to the rest of the world, like a decision," Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) told Mattis. The defense secretary attempted to save face by noting that "today our president did say that he's not made a decision."
The uncomfortable exchange comes amid reports that there is "tension" between what Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton want to see done in Syria and what the Pentagon is advocating.
"Defense Secretary Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford are concerned with managing escalation and preventing blowback on US troops," journalist Kate Brannen reported, citing sources familiar with internal discussions.
There remains tension between what President Trump and National Security Adviser Bolton want and what the Pentagon is advocating.— Kate Brannen (@K8brannen) April 12, 2018
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Trump shook up his Cabinet last month, dismissing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose more level-headed approach to foreign policy often clashed with Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and hard-line positions.
"Tillerson was someone who had to go because he wasn't agreeing with the boss," Giraldi told RT. However, Giraldi said it was inaccurate to claim that Tillerson got the boot solely because of his policy positions. "I think it's an exaggeration to say that Trump has a foreign policy. I think the fact is that Trump is more interested in personal loyalty."
Jatras also expressed doubts over whether Trump has an established foreign policy, arguing that Trump simply likes to surround himself with people he gets along with. "He appoints people who he feels comfortable with personally," Jatras said.
Loyalty aside, Tillerson's more reconciliatory tone towards Pyongyang definitely didn't mix well with Trump's Twitter taunting. As Tillerson ensured North Korea that Washington was keeping negotiation channels open, Trump was bragging about the size of his "nuclear button."
But a disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal was ultimately Tillerson's undoing – or at least that's how Trump tells it.
"When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. He thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, he felt a little differently," Trump said after announcing Tillerson's departure in March. "So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process."
Trump has tapped former CIA director Mike Pompeo to be his next Secretary of State. Pompeo has been an outspoken opponent of the 2015 Iran deal, going so far as to urge the United States to bomb Iran in an attempt to wipe out its "nuclear program."
Both Giraldi and Jatras agreed that if there is another shake-up in Trump's inner circle, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly – not Mattis – will likely be next. According to Giraldi, Kelly's efforts to make the White House more disciplined has led to friction with the president.
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