OPINION: The Mattis Resignation Is A Shame, But Hardly A Constitutional Crisis

Steven Bucci Heritage Foundation
Font Size:

The event that mischief-makers around Washington, D.C. have been “announcing” since the day after President Trump’s inauguration has finally come: SecDef James Mattis has submitted his resignation. Some are predicting the “end” of the Trump administration. Others are gloating, saying that a true professional could never work for Trump, and hoping for more trouble. Let’s take a step back and look at this with a little less emotion.

Mattis will be sorely missed, and the Trump folks will be hard pressed to find a better-suited appointee to run the Department of Defense at this time. That said, this is not the unprecedented disaster some are painting it, and it is not a major (or even minor) constitutional crisis for the nation.

SecDefs resign all the time. I worked for one of the longest serving SecDefs ever, Donald H. Rumsfeld, for five and a half of his six year tenure. He submitted his resignation three times, before President G.W. Bush accepted it in November 2006.

President Clinton had three SecDefs (and an acting one at the end), and Obama had three also. His first two wrote scathing books after leaving office in peaks of ire. When a SecDef cannot (after making their case to the president) adequately align themselves with the chosen policies of the sitting president, they have two honorable options: change their own minds and execute the decision, or resign.

Gen. Mattis, who has served this nation with distinction, bravery, candor, and skill, both in uniform and as SecDef, has given others in public service a “schooling” in how a true professional does it. He never leaked any disagreements, he made no “off the record” remarks, and even in his publically released resignation letter, he did not personalize the differences.

He stated his reasons professionally, and reminded us all that the man who was elected by the people to be president is the boss. He also set the timing of his departure to allow for an orderly transition, thus protecting the interests of the United States and the men and women of the Department of Defense from any additional trauma. No ire, no political theater, just professionalism.

There are those who will attempt to make political hay from this. They may succeed, but don’t look for Jim Mattis to play their or anyone else’s game. He will not. I will also predict that he will not write a snarky “tell all” book, venting his spleen with whining and recriminations. You may see some very substantive op-eds and longer think pieces (Mattis is known for being exceptionally well read and full of sniper accurate insights), which all sides should hope for, read, and take to heart. They’ll be worth it.

What about the future of the Pentagon? There are already numerous stories of depression and fear at DoD over Mattis’ departure. That is to be expected when a highly thought of and even beloved leader announces a resignation. It is difficult to speculate on the future (although it will not stop many pundits) until we see at least a short list of potential replacements. DoD is a huge and complex organization that has undergone lots of leadership transitions. One thing I can tell your unequivocally, is that the business of the defense of the nation and her interests will go forward unabated. The department will continue to offer to the president their best military advice, and then they will execute the lawful orders of the commander in chief.

One hopes that the POTUS will find a strong, competent, independently minded professional (such as Jim Mattis) to fill the gap that will be left in February 2019. The nation works best when DoD is led by strong leadership who do completed staff work, and offer the president multiple, good, and workable options from which to choose when addressing any policy challenge. After the decision is made, DoD in all its diverse capabilities is unmatched in the execution of those plans. “Yes Men” are not helpful to the president or the nation, and must be avoided at all costs.

As an aside, I have already read several breathless commentaries claiming the situation is so dire, that the military should consider a coup d’état. This sort of infantile thinking is very unhelpful. America has been blessed with a military tradition that is absent coups, and no one with any brains should wish us to begin now. We have elections, a deliberative interagency process, and multiple competing branches of government; in short, more diverse avenues for dissent and debate than any government in the world. Everyone should take a breath, engage their brain, and maybe read the Constitution as a little therapy.

Jim Mattis, America thanks you, for your service over 50 years, but now more than ever. You are a living example of how a true professional, serving in a constitutional republic performs and terminates that service. Godspeed General Mattis.

Steven P. Bucci (@SBucci) is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He led deployments to eastern Africa, South Asia and the Persian Gulf as commander of 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces. He received his undergraduate degree from West Point, and his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of South Carolina. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and the Hellenic Army War College in Greece.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.