A disquieting exit

While the string of high-profile departures from the Donald Trump White House is longer than in the case of any of its recent predecessors, last week’s announcement by the President that Defence Secretary James Mattis would step down by the end of February 2019 set alarm bells ringing in Washington and beyond. Soon after, Mr. Trump said he had advanced Mr. Mattis’s exit, and that Patrick M. Shanahan would be acting Defence Secretary from January 1. Mr. Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was a respected voice within an otherwise chaotic and impulsive administration. In his letter of resignation, he indicated that he did not share his boss’s worldview on “countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours”, including China and Russia; and that he believed in “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors”. The trigger was reportedly a phone conversation between Mr. Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, during which Mr. Trump abruptly decided to concur with Mr. Erdoğan on withdrawing roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. This has been attacked on both sides of the aisle, for fear that it could pave the way for a Turkish retaliation against Kurdish forces in Syria, which have been critical to efforts in recapturing more than 95% of the territory taken by the Islamic State, and cede space in Syria to Russian and Iranian interests. Mr. Mattis’s departure comes at a fraught juncture for the Trump administration. On the one hand, Democrats are on the front foot after taking over the House of Representatives. They will doubtless double down on the multiple investigations working their way through the Congressional and judicial systems, relating to possible covert Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election as well as to the Trump Foundation and conflict-of-interest questions. Mr. Trump’s supporters are as incensed as his critics over questions around his stalled campaign promise to build a border wall with Mexico to stymie undocumented immigration. A budget-related shutdown of the government has begun, and the anxiety of the financial markets is palpable. To lose a trusted adviser, considered by many to be the last “adult in the room” in the proximity of a tantrum-prone Commander-in-Chief, is to risk isolation on the global stage. Mr. Trump’s decision to bring troops home from wars in faraway lands is in keeping with promises made during his campaign. But such a move could prove to be rash and self-defeating. Mr. Shanahan, who has been Mr. Mattis’s deputy in the Department of Defence, will have to deal with the reality that the balance of strategic power has slipped further from Washington’s grip.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-disquieting-exit/article25823485.ece

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