OPINION at the NBC News by Col. Jack Jacobs. From the beginning of his tenure, the president has given critics plenty of reasons to be excoriated. But we have heard little dissent from warriors — until now.
On Oct. 17, I attended the Al Smith Dinner, an annual charity gala in New York City. Political big-shots mingle with media celebrities and corporate executives. It is always an entertaining experience. This year’s keynote address was by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s erstwhile secretary of defense. Trump once praised Mattis profusely, but more recently has made him the object of his scorn, calling him “the world’s most overrated general.” (Full disclosure: I know Jim Mattis and can report that he is among the finest officers I have met since I first donned a uniform 53 years ago.)
Although Mattis has a well-developed and wry sense of humor, he is judicious about using it. His public persona leaves one with the correct impression that he is the consummate professional warrior. But at the Al Smith Dinner, he chose to deploy his weapons of erudition, surprising and amusing the hundreds of attendees with a rare counterattack directed at the president’s “overrated” insult. “I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress,” Mattis said in his keynote speech. “So, I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.”
The barb was doubly surprising given Mattis’ previous reluctance to criticize his former commander in chief, a decision that has garnered its fair share of criticism. But there’s a reason for Mattis’ reluctance. Generals in Mattis’ position, even those who are retired, do not criticize the sitting president. Until this administration, Mattis’ joke would have been unthinkable. And yet, Mattis is merely the latest in a line of commanding officers who have recently rebuked the president’s decisions. This collective decision to go against such entrenched military traditions should give their warnings even more weight. When the generals are speaking out, something is really wrong.
When warriors of the caliber of Mattis and McRaven or Votel and Allen publicly reprove the president, citizens may properly conclude that our national security decision-making is truly dysfunctional and that the nation is dangerously at risk.
To be sure, from the very beginning of his tenure, the president has given critics plenty of reasons — both stylistic and substantive — to be excoriated. But, as in the past, we have not heard dissent from warriors. Until now.
Perhaps the proximate impetus for the military’s disaffection was the president’s latest decision, to withdraw precipitously almost all American forces from Syria. For the United States, there has been nothing positive that has resulted from this misguided choice, and all the strategic gains have accrued to Turkey, Syria, Russia, Iran and ISIS.
On the other hand, maybe this decision’s effect on these officers’ thinking is more wide-ranging. We are now in the unenviable and dangerous position of having convinced both friends and adversaries that we are withdrawing from the world stage. Mattis, for one, would gladly suffer a lifetime of adolescent, ad hominem criticism if the result were the safety, security and prosperity of his country.
(Tip from Roving Reporter Sherry.)