Since the time defense secretary Jim Mattis testified before Congress about unrest in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., since his department announced that troops will return to Iraq and have sent 2,000 back to southern Iraq from Kuwait, I’ve been asking Mattis for an explanation. Why did the Pentagon send military forces to Missouri? And why go back to Iraq? And where is he now?
Mr. Mattis declined to give a straightforward answer to me in an interview Monday, but I do believe his was the deciding vote in the White House. And since his days with Mr. Trump, Mr. Mattis has become an independent voice.
From the moment he retired from the Marine Corps, and took a seat in the House of Representatives, Mr. Mattis was, like the rest of us, on Trump Time. He spoke to him publicly — but, in private, about his concerns about Mr. Trump’s conduct in office. I think that is why Mattis thought they should no longer work together.
Under Mr. Mattis, the U.S. military in Iraq went through a period of heavy rebuilding and stabilization.
The U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Mr. Mattis told me, was always envisioned as very short-term. And it almost ran out of money as a result.
I have reported from numerous meetings that Mattis told Mr. Trump that the Defense Department would be barred from adding to the 2,000 troops in Iraq. This had been backed by other top national security officials.
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That would have been disastrous for both Afghanistan and Iraq, which Mattis sees as the two hot spots of the long-running war on terror. It also would have been a disaster for the U.S. military — which will now have to rely on less experienced Afghan troops and a soldier/commander stretched by constant deployments to Iraq.
Even Mr. Mattis, who made his name in military affairs as an anti-war congressman, does not want Americans to get bogged down in a years-long struggle in Iraq and would like to get the combat troops out of there as soon as possible.
That’s why the Trump presidency has posed a huge risk for Mr. Mattis, and why his days with Mr. Trump may be numbered.