Updated: May 5, 2021
In practice, 'America first' has meant 'America alone,' making the US more vulnerable to emerging threats.
This week, former Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis broke his silence on the election with a public call to turn the ship around, so to speak.
Alongside three co-authors, Mattis published a piece in Foreign Affairs on Monday warning against abrupt departure from Afghanistan and calling for the elimination of “America First” as a tenet of defense strategy. The White House amateur hour, or should I say comedy hour, may finally be over.
US President Donald Trump’s simplistic “America First” defense strategy, may be scrapped, along with his unhinged Twitter-esque rantings. But that will be for President-elect Joe Biden to decide — and there is no shortage of calls for change from former Trump aides.
“To dismiss US involvement today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as ‘endless’ or ‘forever’ wars — as both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden do — rather than as support to friendly governments struggling to exert control over their own territory misses the point,” Mattis and his co-authors wrote.
“It is in the United States’ interests to build the capacity of such governments to deal with the threats that concern Americans.”
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What Mattis failed to say is that these 'friendly governments are struggling for more than two decades already to exert control over their own country. The impression exists that these countries take a laid back position, while America is doing the dirty work.
As defense secretary, Mattis was the main architect of the National Defense Strategy, which directed the military to prepare for potential conflict with Russia and China.
But Mattis and the others urged Biden and his new national security team to give the NDS a major rewrite and soften America’s confrontational tone, which has turned off even the closest of allies.
“In January, when President Joe Biden and his national security team begin to reevaluate US foreign policy, we hope they will quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate ‘America first’ from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades,” the authors wrote.
Mattis was joined by Kori Schake, director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; retired Adm. Jim Ellis, former head of US Strategic Command; and Joe Felter, a West Point graduate and Special Forces veteran of Afghanistan who now serves as a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Nov. 9 shortly after Esper called for tighter cooperation with allies.
Esper’s acting replacement, Christopher C. Miller, has announced plans to draw down US troops to 2,500 in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15.
This move must be re-evaluated, the four authors said.
“Enhancing national security must start with the fundamental truth that the United States cannot protect itself or its interests without the help of others,” Mattis and his co-authors wrote.
Mattis, a retired Marine general and former head of US Central Command, resigned as defense secretary in December 2018, although Trump later said he was fired.
The immediate cause of Mattis’ resignation was Trump’s surprise announcement that all US troops in Syria should be withdrawn.
In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held.
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.”
Trump, turned on Mattis, calling him “the world’s most overrated general.”
Mattis acquired the nickname “Mad Dog” — a moniker that is not used by people who know him, friends say — after he made comments such as “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet” and “a good soldier follows orders, but a true warrior wears his enemy’s skin like a poncho,” CNN reported.
“That nickname was given to me by the press, and some of you may have experienced similar occasions with the press where perhaps they didn’t get it quite right,” Mattis said.
The Foreign Affairs article, which took the high road, expanded on views expressed in Mattis’ resignation letter.
“Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the 2017 National Defense Strategy described an international environment of increased global disorder, long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and eroding US military advantage,” the authors wrote.
“The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to US interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth.”
In practice, they added, “America first” has meant “America alone,” making the nation more vulnerable to emerging threats.
The article urged the new Biden administration to show more deference to allies’ concerns in joining with the US to face global challenges.
“Advocates of the current administration’s approach seem to believe that other countries will have no choice but to accede to the United States’ wishes and cooperate on its terms. This is delusion,” the article said.
The authors also urged the Biden administration to seek areas of cooperation with China, the US’ major competitor, while facing down the threat to avoid war.