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‘A morning of alarm’: Mattis departure sends shock waves abroad

Overseas, the former Marine was viewed as a steady hand as America's role in the world was thrown into question.

President Donald Trump, left, pauses while speaking as James Mattis, secretary of defense, listens during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2018.
President Donald Trump, left, pauses while speaking as James Mattis, secretary of defense, listens during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2018.Read moreYuri Gripas / Bloomberg

For two years, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stood as the American government's reassurance to the world that it had not forsaken the military and diplomatic structures that the United States helped put into place after World War II, even as these commitments were disparaged by President Donald Trump.

The announcement Thursday that Mattis would leave his post because of Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria, paired with word that the president was also preparing to downsize the American presence in Afghanistan, set off alarm bells in foreign capitals early Friday. In volatile regions of the world that bear the imprint of decades-long American influence, there was fresh concern about the consequences of an increasingly inward-looking United States.

European leaders didn't mince words. "A morning of alarm in Europe" was how Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and formerly prime minister of Sweden, described the reaction to news of the defense secretary's exit. Mattis, he wrote on Twitter, "is the remaining strong bond across the Atlantic in the Trump administration. All the others are fragile at best or broken at worst."

Jürgen Hardt, point man on foreign affairs for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Friday morning that Mattis' resignation represents a "turning point."

After Trump's decisions to pull troops from Syria and Afghanistan, Hardt said, Western allies should be prepared for further drawdowns of U.S. forces. He noted that the withdrawals were winning praise from both Putin and the far-left in Germany. "That," he said, "should give us cause for concern."

With Mattis, "the last voice of reason leaves the administration," observed the chair of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, Norbert Röttgen. He described the defense secretary as someone who understands that "what sets the U.S. apart from other powers is its tight net of alliances and the loyalty of its friends." Trump, Röttgen remarked pointedly, "does not."

The concern was no less pronounced in France, where François Heisbourg, a former diplomatic adviser, wrote on Twitter that Mattis had stabilized a dysfunctional administration and "helped preserve the Western alliance system."

"Believe me, America's allies are already reviewing all options," wrote Heisbourg, who is president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"This is big bad," he added.

The French government, which has pursued an active role in the conflict in Syria, made clear where it came down on the clashing interpretations over Syria that drove Mattis to submit a letter of resignation on Thursday. The defense minister, Florence Parly, said Friday on RTL radio that ISIS had been reduced but not eliminated. She said the French government "does not at all share" the American interpretation that sees the fight in Syria as over.

Parly also saluted Mattis as a "partner" and a "great solder."

Mattis' resignation even left Moscow on edge. While Mattis often referred to Russia as a strategic adversary of the United States, Russian officials also saw his leadership as key to preventing a military confrontation between the two forces in Syria.

"Mattis was tough, but not without realism: he didn't seek conflict with Russia," lawmaker Alexey Pushkov, a foreign-policy specialist in the upper house of parliament, wrote on Twitter. "Will the replacement be for the better?"

But another lawmaker in the upper house, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, saw a heartening sign in the general's departure. On issues such as relations with Russia and China, Trump's view was so different from his defense secretary that the president essentially forced Mattis out, Kosachev said in a Facebook post.

"This is an interesting signal - likely a positive one," Kosachev said.

As for the Kremlin's official response, spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked about Mattis as a restraining influence on Trump, had this dry rejoinder: "In our times, guessing who restrained President Trump from doing what is the work of political scientists and a rather thankless task."

In parts of South Asia and the Middle East, warnings emerged that the abrupt shift in strategy propelling Mattis' exit would be a grievous mistake, even as Kabul struck a calm note.

A senior official in Pakistan's foreign ministry, speaking about the possibility that Trump might remove about 7,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, said that "any troop withdrawal or major reduction in their number before peace is restored would be a very unwise move. It would bring chaos and disorder, more fighting and perhaps a civil war. U.S. troops should stay until peace and stability are brought back." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the matter.

But Friday afternoon, in the first public comments from the Kabul government on reports of U.S. troop reduction, several aides to President Ashraf Ghani said that such a drawdown would have no major impact on Afghanistan's ability to defend itself. Their reaction marked a notable contrast with prior appeals for U.S. troops to remain as a force for stability. Concern had been mounting in Afghanistan about the possibility that the United States might strike a hasty deal with the Taliban, which Afghan officials and other observers say would endanger security and democratic progress.

Harun Chakhansuri, a senior spokesman for Ghani, told an Afghan TV channel that troop reduction "will not affect security situation in the country." He said that "most of the U.S. forces which will possibly be withdrawn . . . are engaged in a training and advising mission for Afghan forces, and Afghan forces are capable of defending the country."

Israel, meanwhile, was most alarmed by the abrupt decision by Trump to wash his hands of ongoing violence in Syria. Following the news of Trump's plans, Netanyahu described the withdrawal on Twitter as an "American decision."

There was a sense that, with Mattis on the way out, Israel was losing a voice for its security interests in the Middle East. Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the prime minister's office and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., noted that, like Israel's leadership, "Mattis believed that a strong American presence in the Middle East served as a buffer to Iran and other hostile elements."

"Today as in the past, Israel will have to defend itself with its own forces to deal with the great threats in the north," Oren tweeted.

And in Asia, news of the Pentagon chief's departure raised questions about Washington's approach to China's rise.

The uncertainty was felt particularly in India, where bolstering ties with the United States has been one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's central foreign policy aims.

Arvind Gupta, who served as India's deputy national security adviser until last year, said the country considered Mattis "a friend" with whom it had "an excellent relationship." Mattis played a key role in intensifying the defense cooperation between the U.S. and India as both countries seek to manage China's increasingly active role in the region.

During Mattis' tenure, the two countries signed a landmark military communications agreement, and the retired four-star Marine general developed a rapport with his Indian counterpart, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The two held talks four times this year, most recently earlier this month in Washington. Mattis also met with Modi in June and September.

Since the inauguration, Mattis has persistently warned about China as the greatest long-term threat facing the U.S., a view that permeated last year's National Security Strategy paper, in which the administration recast China as a competitor. While Beijing saw the retired Marine Corps general as one of its toughest critics, it also saw Mattis as a straight-shooter in an administration that the Chinese government otherwise has struggled to decipher.

Yue Gang, a retired People's Liberation Army colonel and military commentator in Beijing, said the Chinese military had high regard for Mattis, who, even in times of high tension, stressed the importance of avoiding a shooting war between the two powers.

"Even though toward us he was tough and vexing, the Chinese military felt assured dealing with this type of professional military man," Yue said. "Our concern is who comes next. If Trump chooses a lackey who isn't willing to serve as a balance to his instincts, the worry is that the world becomes even more unstable."

It is largely because of Mattis, "viewed as a 'mature guy' within the Trump administration," said Shen Yamei, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, that "military relations between China and the U.S. have been relatively stable."

Gupta, India's former deputy national security adviser, played down the longer-term consequences of the resignation. "This is not something that has happened for the first time," he said. "In the end we have to deal with the American administration and that is what we will do."

In fact, said Ajai Shukla, an Indian defense analyst and former army officer, Mattis' departure and the abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is the kind of "adverse contingency New Delhi has been planning for."

"Mattis' departure signals that it would not be wise to assume that all the old policies will continue," he said. While India has drawn closer to the U.S., he added, it has also hedged its bets by defusing tensions with China and maintaining ties with Russia. With defense cooperation at the heart of the U.S.-India relationship, Mattis' departure will have an "out-of-proportion impact" on ties with New Delhi, Shukla predicted.

News of Mattis' departure reverberated on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang has said this week it will not give up its nuclear arms until the "U.S. nuclear threat to Korea" is eliminated.

Kwon Bo-ram, a researcher at South Korea's state-run Institute for Defense Analyses, said the uncertainty created by the resignation could affect the ongoing defense cost-sharing talks between Seoul and Washington. The two sides failed to reach a deal amid disagreement over a bigger South Korean share of the cost.

The shock announcement that Mattis would soon leave the administration also created alarm in Australia, a close ally that currently has several hundred personnel in Afghanistan.

The former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, observed that it would "hard to replace" Mattis, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

"His wise counsel, integrity and deep understanding of geostrategic issues will be greatly missed by the U.S. government and those who worked with him," said Bishop, who worked closely with Mattis during the first two years of the Trump administration. The two countries are part of the "Five Eyes" group, an Anglophone intelligence alliance that also includes Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

Defense Minister Christopher Pyne hailed Mattis as a "close friend of Australia."

Rather than simply another departure of "one of the adults in the Trump administration," as Jim Molan, a senator with the governing Liberal Party and a former major general in the army, put it, the exit by Mattis makes clear that Australia can no longer rely on the U.S. for its defense.

"The United States, whose military capability now has been severely reduced since the end of the Cold War, now has introduced another extreme variable into their decision-making and that must be of deep concern to Australia," he told The Australian newspaper. "The answer must be that Australia must be self reliant in its defense."

Stanley-Becker reported from Florence, Constable from Islamabad and Slater from New Delhi. The Washington Post’s Griff Witte and Luisa Beck in Berlin, Gerry Shih in Beijing, Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Loveday Morris in Jerusalem and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed.