US Politics: What letters like Mattis’s can foretell. Matt Potter | The Washington Post 

‘Dear Boss: I quit.’ What letters like Mattis’s can foretell.

Matt Potter | The Washington Post 

Matt Potter: author of “The Last Goodbye: A History of the World in Resignation Letters.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s letter of resignation to President Trump starts ominously, with a frosty disregard for White House form.

H.R. McMaster, in his letter resigning his post as national security adviser, had been “thankful to Trump for the opportunity to serve him and our nation.” Even former attorney general Jeff Sessions, unceremoniously asked to resign, had managed an “Apprentice”-like response: “Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. President.”             

But in Mattis’ letter, there’s a gaping hole where the addressee — who lives for public flattery — should be. “I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals,” Mattis wrote, conspicuously avoiding any expression of delight, honor or gratitude toward the president.

That is just the opening.

“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 to a president whose decades have been informed by no such immersion.

Mattis continued, pointedly: “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.”

No one saw the letter as anything but a stinging protest.

“Old Marines never die, but they do resign after the President ignores their advice, betrays our allies, rewards our enemies, and puts the nation’s security at risk,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote in a tweet, referencing Mattis’s storied career in the Marine Corps.

I’ve studied resignations for 28 years. I’ve written a book about them — the world viewed through the medium of the kiss-off, from classical times to the modern day. History is written as much in endings as beginnings. The pivotal changes can arrive not with “Eureka!” moments but with adamant refusals.

The popular image of the big exit is a grandstanding, impromptu “Jerry Maguire” moment: “Who’s coming with me?”. Yet the most effective leave-takings are composed over time and with military precision. These are made up of the words, distilled from private agonies, that we place on the public record. They must function as appeals to history — as, in a case like Mattis’ — or one good grenade.

The United States armed forces are home to a “go-down-fighting” resignation-letter subculture all its own. The military tradition of explosive, often cutting letters began in 1979 by Air Force Capt. Ron Keys, who served as a pilot in the Vietnam War. His resignation, tendered to Gen. Wilbur Creech, contained legendary and often-imitated lines: “The General looked us in the eye and said, in effect, ‘Gentlemen, either I’m very stupid or I’m lying to you’” and “All those Masters and professional military educators and not a leadership trait in sight!”

By the time he retired in 2007, he was General Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command. But it was the frazzled, almost comedic howl of rage that was Keys’ resignation, rather than the officer’s career, that was most widely remembered. Passed around and published, it quickly formed the template for what became known as the “Dear Boss” letter — Air Force slang for the frustrated officer’s resignation as unrestrained truth attack.

Planned, polished and executed for maximum effect, Dear Boss letters are ambushes by nature. The most famous — before Mattis’ on Thursday — was that of the highly decorated Army Col. Millard A. Peck, who resigned in 1991 as head of the Pentagon intelligence unit assigned to search and account for missing-in-action servicemen in Vietnam. Over four pages of complaints that would doubtlessly ring bells with Mattis, Peck wrote of being “painfully aware … that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of characters.” His department, he said, was nothing but “a ‘toxic waste dump’ designed to bury the whole mess out of sight and mind in a facility with limited access to public scrutiny.”

He stapled the letter to his office door and strode away from his command.

In a country still ambivalent about remembering Vietnam and haunted by the possibility of prisoners of war as well as those missing in action, the effect was electric. Within weeks, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened a public hearing. Peck ended up overseeing administrative services for military ceremonies. He had taken the hit, but he’d got the result he wanted: a national public reckoning with the way the military looked after its own.

Mattis’ Dear Boss letter sits squarely in this military tradition. It is a reckoning and a duty, at whatever cost. It may have been a surprise to us and, one must imagine, to Trump — no secretary of defense had ever resigned in protest. But it was not a surprise to Mattis. Most striking throughout his letter is the avoidance of even the most boilerplate terms of esteem or loyalty toward the president.

With Trump’s craving for personal fealty from former employees — something of a lifelong obsession and a sore spot right now, as he fumes on Twitter about his former lawyer Michael Cohen turning “rat” — Mattis’s choice of words, and silences, would seem to represent some of the subtlest and most carefully pointed trolling imaginable.

But Mattis’ letter is no simple insider hit. It could serve as a manifesto for his — perhaps even the president’s — successors. A vision of a still-possible future in which American security is better served in alliance and cooperation, not isolation, and, above all, a more unifying, honest presidency.

Perhaps — and this has always been key to the “Dear Boss” tradition — it is Mattis showing Trump, pointedly and decently, how leadership should be done and what dignity and discretion look like.

Mattis’ letter echoes one from outside the military, too. By invoking the NATO democracies’ commitment to fighting alongside the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 to warn against isolationism, it is a direct successor to an open letter from 2003 that Mattis must know well:

The diplomat John Brady Kiesling wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell protesting what he saw as the frittering away of support and goodwill toward the United States from allies around the world. Kiesling, a career diplomat who had served in U.S. embassies from Israel to Greece and the former Soviet Union, had watched in horror as the George W. Bush administration rode roughshod over allies’ concerns to force the case for war in the Middle East. Finally, he could no longer bite his tongue. His letter provides something of a voice-over for Mattis’s own – Kiesling wrote:

 “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson.”

“We have a coalition still, a good one. The loyalty of many of our friends is impressive, a tribute to American moral capital built up over a century. … Loyalty should be reciprocal. Why does our President condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this Administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials? … When our friends are afraid of us rather than for us, it is time to worry.”

Kiesling’s resignation was an early crack in the consensus view of the Bush administration’s foreign policy adventures. It precipitated a spate of similar letters, including that of Pentagon official Karen Kwiatkowski, who skewered then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld with a public but anonymous “Dear Boss” that cast his reign as chaotic, dishonest and dangerous. The letters helped spur an honest re-evaluation of the war and something approaching soul-searching from the American media about their role.

Reaction from U.S. allies to Mattis’s departure is characterized by worry at the prospect of an unrestrained Trump, flanked by hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who is now a chairman of the European Council on Foreign Relations, called it “a morning of alarm in Europe.”

But resignations are never just departures. They can spell the beginning of the end for seemingly invulnerable leaders whose autocratic tendencies or lack of restraint have become liabilities. Such was the case for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The resignation of a once-loyal senior official set her downfall in motion. Over the past three decades, Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation to her, like the Dear Boss letter, has become a template for diplomats and states-people, plundered as much as admired.

Like Mattis, Howe, Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, was seen as the last moderating influence on an unpredictable and increasingly autocratic leader. He was seen as a foreign policy expert and the “grown-up in the room.” Over the years, he had counseled diplomacy over confrontational rhetoric. So steady was he in comparison with the increasingly unpredictable Thatcher that he was assigned the nickname Mogadon Man, after the popular tranquilizer brand. His resignation in protest in November 1990 came at Thatcher out of left field.

Reading his letter of resignation to Parliament, he talked of how “every step forward risked being subverted by some casual comment or impulsive answer” and compared serving under Thatcher’s leadership to being a sportsman who is sent out to play only to find, at the moment they square up to hit the first ball, “that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” It is an analogy that Mattis, sidelined since the summer by Trump and the hawkish likes of Bolton, would undoubtedly recognize.

Howe’s resignation ended: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.”

Sure enough, his resignation prompted a rush of such responses. Nine days later, Thatcher, the Conservative premier who had seemed so invulnerable, was gone.

More than just the frustrations of a military man, Mattis’ resignation seems to be about the need to choose a side and the sense that time is running out.

As Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises,” one goes bankrupt in two ways: “gradually and then suddenly.” The same is almost always true of the crumbling of administrations.

Resignations tend not to come alone. On Saturday, two days after Mattis’s resignation, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, tendered his own resignation protesting Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw from Syria.

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  • guyaneseonline  On December 24, 2018 at 6:30 am

    Trump, annoyed by resignation letter, pushes out Mattis early

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 24, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Tim Wise on Race, Crime, and the Politics of Fear in America

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 24, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Mattis’s Blunt Letter of Resignation Puts Republicans on Notice

    Dan Balz | The Washington Post

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did more than rebuke President Trump when he submitted his letter of resignation on Thursday afternoon. By the clarity of his words, he raised the bar on every official in government, especially Republicans in Congress.

    For two years, Republican elected officials have sought to compartmentalize their relationships with the president. They could criticize him for his over-the-top tweets or recoil at his erratic behavior, then return to business as usual in pursuit of a tax bill or fewer regulations or more judicial nominations.

    Mattis did what none of his former colleagues dared to do when they departed the Trump administration:

    He resigned in principle, his differences with the president stated explicitly, in a way that was designed to draw attention. He left behind a question that others in power must consider as they weigh this moment in the country’s history:

    Do they believe in the values Mattis espoused in his letter or do they believe in those pursued by the president?

    Mattis’s words and what they imply fall most directly on Republicans and they leave little middle ground. If GOP senators agree with him, what are they prepared to do about it?

    So far, they have ducked in holding the president accountable. Even after losing 40 seats and control of the House in the midterm elections, Republicans continue to act as if nothing much has changed, as the debacle of the government shutdown suggests.

    There are obvious risks in stepping forward, but high-stakes moments demand the best of leaders, not the least.

    The advisers around the president who were once seen as steadying influences have all melted away – ONE-BY-ONE:

    Trump never got on with Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state. Since leaving, the former Exxon chief executive has shown that he holds the president in low regard. Relations were often tense between Trump and his second national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, also a retired general, departs at the end of the year, leaving on bad terms with the commander-in-chief.

    The response to Mattis’s resignation was telling. From allies of the administration in Congress to allies in foreign capitals, the reaction was not just one of shock but also one of alarm, as if a last line of defense had broken down, leaving a beleaguered president to act even more freely on his impulses and in reaction to perceived provocations, criticism or signs of disrespect.

    Events will push the Mattis resignation to the sidelines of the news, undoubtedly.

    The government shutdown drama – the latest example of the chaos set off by the president – already has begun to do that.

    But the power of Mattis’s words transcend individual controversies or arguments of this or that policy. It prompts larger questions about the state of the country under the president at a time when his leadership has rattled people and markets.
    There is no longer any escaping from the reality of what the past two years have produced:

    A president who is facing multiple investigations, by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and by others; a president who has further divided an already divided country; a president who has not sought in any serious way to reach beyond his base; a president whose policies have left allies overseas worried about the absence of U.S. leadership.

    The country is heading into a year in which many of these could come to a head and at a time when the House will be in Democratic hands.

    The question now, more urgent as a result of what Mattis said, is whether Republicans in positions of responsibility try to continue as if these are normal times or whether they step forward, assess things smartly and exert the kind of leadership they feel is in the best interests of the country.

    The effect of what Mattis said in his letter is to puncture the belief that there can be an indefinite continuation of a situation in which the president moves in one direction while others in his government follow a more traditional course and quietly seek to reassure everyone that things are fine. Mattis suggests that the answer is no, that this tension is not sustainable.

    The president ran and won on a platform of “America First”. All presidents deserve a team of advisers who reflect their priorities, as Mattis stated in his letter. A president also needs advisers who can tell him when they disagree.

    The country needs a president who listens to those advisers and makes decisions after robust discussion and careful thought and whose mind can be changed by the weight of evidence. The country expects a president to fully explain the reasons behind his actions, not by tweets or short videos on the White House lawn.

    The country deserves a president who cares about the truth.

    These are issues that should be on the minds of Republicans, many of whom have private qualms about the president. Even if they conclude that they must move to constrain him, which is far from assured, they will quickly recognize there are no easy answers about what they can do to be effective. They also know that any Republican who opposes the president will pay a price, given his tight grip on the GOP and its base.

    Some Republicans have spoken out consistently. Retiring Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) are the most prominent. Over time, their voices have lost potency, in part because they have been battered and belittled by the president and because they’ve been unable to get others to join them.

    Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is mulling a 2020 challenge to the president in one form or another, though he too has yet to prove he can take his fight beyond something that is mostly rhetorical.

    One sign of the exasperation with the president was the statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about Mattis’s resignation. Reaffirming his support for the postwar alliances this country helped to construct and insistent that leaders remain “clear-eyed” about threats from foes such as Russia, …….

    McConnell said he was “particularly distressed” that Mattis was resigning over differences with the president.

    McConnell has rarely quarreled publicly with the president. His statement highlighted the level of apprehension the defense secretary’s departure has triggered. That the majority leader did not go further, to put the moment into the larger context of the potential damage of an unrestrained president, was a reminder of the box in which Republicans have put themselves by their overall silence.

    Another illustration of the reluctance of Republican officials to step into breach came in retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s farewell speech last week. Ryan (Wis.) once again decried the state of politics, which even before Trump was elected is polarized and broken. Yet he never mentioned by name a president who has made things worse.

    For two years, Ryan has walked this path and it has taken a toll on his reputation and probably his legacy.

    As the departures from the administration add up, expectations of an effective counterbalance inside the executive branch have diminished.

    Instead, that responsibility will fall to others in the Republican Party. Mattis has effectively asked everyone to step up and make their positions clear, to defend what they believe in and to challenge what they don’t.

  • walter  On December 24, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    One day everyone wants the US of a war with out an end, a war that is making a few people very RICH. Now when President Trump brings the troops safely home, suddenly not the right thing to do???? there is very little immediate hope for the people in that area, all they know is WAR, FIGHTING.KILLING, generations grew up in that mess, let them sort it out. One other thing, most of the people leaving/ left, the inner circle were already tarnished with the obama, clinton slime,they should have left at the start of his tenure, unless they were there to spy, misguide, destroy.

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 24, 2018 at 8:11 pm

    The accomplishments of a US president’s first year in office can be credited to his predecessor, at least where the economy is concerned. And Donald Trump was handed the best performing economy on the planet.

    All the tough decisions – to refinance the banks, rescue the car companies and deflate the real-estate bubble – had been made. The stock market was tearing along, setting records almost every week.

    Trump gave this rising balloon extra air with $1tn of tax cuts. It was borrowed money, but no matter. The economy sailed along for another year and the stock market carried on rising. His plan was to win the midterm congressional elections and then persuade the Republican party to give him another $1-trillion, or as near to it as possible.

    In other words, he would use another pile of borrowed cash to pump up the economy again, hoping against hope that it would not blow up before his re-election.

    Without control of the House of Representatives, his plans are in ruins. And that was obvious to stock and bond traders, who followed the vote in November by putting a sell sign over their maps of America.

    December has proved to be the worst month for shares in many decades. Oil prices have slumped and the market is expecting worse to come in the new year.

    The reasons for pessimism are piling up. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, US home sales are struggling, with agents reporting that there are not enough buyers and asking prices are not being met.

    A measure of private-sector activity showed the US economy slipped to its lowest growth rate for 18 months in December, hit by declining car sales. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve deems the strength of the economy to be enough to withstand several more rate rises. There was one last week and at least two more are expected next year.

    Analysts told investors that the impetus from Trump’s tax cuts were running out, and without anything to replace them there needed to be a lift from trade.

    However, in China, Xi Jinping’s rebalancing of the economy away from highly subsidised smoke-stack industries towards greater consumer spending is not going so well. Several times he has been forced to allow higher borrowing to keep businesses and consumers from declaring themselves bankrupt.

    There are plenty of analysts who believe the control accrued by the Chinese Communist party will provide the government with the levers to eventually carry through its plan.

    But in the meantime, the world’s second largest economy and biggest source of imports to the US is troubled and its previously formidable manufacturing engine is spluttering.

    Europe was looking like a saviour earlier this year when GDP figures showed a healthy level of growth across almost the entire continent. Yet a slowdown is already in train, partly Brexit-related and partly in response to China’s woes, which have hit German exports hard.

    And in recent days Trump has given markets something else to worry about – building the wall. His threat to shut down the government if Congress refuses to provide him with the money for a Pan-American border fence with Mexico has spooked traders.

    This reckless threat was preceded by the surprise decision to pull US troops out of Syria. If Trump could make such a move without consulting important allies, then perhaps he was capable of the “long shutdown” he has promised in his tweets.

    With ever fewer calming voices in the White House to rein in the president’s wilder excesses, it’s understandable that the finance industry is jittery about the prospects for 2019.

    The Guardian UK

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