(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary James Mattis’ startling resignation on Thursday came amid reports that President Trump plans a 20 percent reduction in troop numbers in Afghanistan, following his decision to withdraw all troops from Syria.
The retired Marine Corps general’s resignation letter suggested differences with the president over how America deals with friends and foes alike.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in the letter, a copy of which was released by the Pentagon.
“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.”
The letter focused on two issues – the importance of maintaining strong alliances and treating allies with respect, and the need to be “resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” with specific reference to China and Russia.
On Twitter, Trump said Mattis would be “retiring, with distinction, at the end of February” and thanked him for his service, but did not respond directly to the issues raised in the letter.
Instead he focused on progress during Mattis’ tenure in buying new fighting equipment, and said the general had also been “a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations.”
A day before the resignation, Trump announced that some 2,000 U.S. troops who are supporting mostly Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria will be returning home, saying that the terrorist group has been defeated.
Some Republican lawmakers usually supportive of the administration said the move amounted to abandoning the Kurdish allies while boosting the interests of Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, ISIS – and Turkey, whose government wants to crush the Kurdish fighters, viewing them as terrorists.
Some of those same GOP critics expressed deep concern about Mattis’ departure.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Twitter the resignation letter “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”
Rubio voiced the hope that those “who have supported this administration’s initiatives over the last two years can persuade the President to choose a different direction.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised Mattis, saying he “has been in the fight against radical Islam for decades and provided sound and ethical military advice to President Trump.”
Graham, who was outspokenly critical of the Syria withdrawal decision, also expressed opposition Thursday to reported plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from roughly 15,000 to 12,000.
“Like in Syria, troop withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground,” he said. “The conditions in Afghanistan – at the present moment – make American troop withdrawals a high risk strategy. If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11.”
Graham, recently back from a visit to Afghanistan, said the local affiliate of ISIS “remains a direct threat to our homeland and they would dramatically benefit from a reduced American troop presence.”
Rubio and Graham joined fellow Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa), along with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Angus King (I-Me.) urging Trump in a letter Wednesday to reconsider the Syria exit.
“Any sign of weakness perceived by Iran or Russia will only result in their increased presence in the region and a decrease in the trust of our partners and allies,” said the six – all, apart from Rubio, Senate Armed Services Committee members.
The strong reactions to the Syria withdrawal decision put Cotton and Graham – both of whom have been slated before as possible replacements for Mattis – on the wrong side of the president on that issue.
Among other names to have come up in recent months as possible defense secretary contenders is that of retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who declined the top Pentagon job for family reasons before Mattis got the nod in December 2016.
But Keane, too, differs with Trump’s Syria decision, calling it “a strategic mistake” that could see ISIS re-emerge, the Iran threat increase, and Israel face greater danger.
On Fox News on Thursday night, Keane said the Syria and Afghanistan troop decisions were factors contributing to Mattis’ departure.
He said he had spoken to Mattis on Wednesday and “we’re both of one mind in our opposition to the decision to pull our forces out of Syria, and what its ramifications would be.”
Keane praised Mattis, but also said he was confident Trump would find “a successor who’s very capable and will support the president’s agenda, and also disagree strongly with him when necessary.”
Keane also told interviewer Martha MacCallum that he has “no plans to go back into public service.”
Other names to come up over past months as possible replacements for Mattis include former Missouri Senator and Bipartisan Policy Center Senior Fellow Jim Talent, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and David McCormick, a Gulf War combat veteran who served in the George W. Bush administration’s Treasury Department.