On his final day in office, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a pointed but brief farewell to the troops Monday, urging them to "keep the faith" despite the break with President Donald Trump that forced his hasty departure.
"Our Department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult," Mattis said in the three-paragraph statement that hit on the theme he stressed earlier this month in his letter of resignation -- the commitment to work with allies to protect the nation's national security interests.
"So keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes," the 68-year-old Mattis said in a farewell that follows more than 40 years in uniform as a Marine and nearly two years as Defense secretary.
"It has been my high honor to serve at your side," Mattis said. "May God hold you safe in the air, on land, and at sea."
At the White House earlier this month, Mattis handed Trump his letter of resignation a day after the president on Dec. 19 announced that the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawn.
In a series of Tweets before Mattis' farewell was posted Monday, Trump hit back against the retired "failed generals" who had criticized the withdrawal and questioned his fitness to be commander-in-chief.
Trump said that "I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do!"
Trump did not name the "failed generals," but his Twitter posts followed the scathing criticism aimed at him Sunday by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview on ABC-TV's "This Week" program Sunday.
McChrystal called Trump "immoral" and said potential successors to Mattis should consider whether they would have to compromise their own principles to serve under him.
In his letter of resignation, Mattis offered to stay on at the Pentagon until Feb. 28 to ensure a smooth transition and give Trump time to consider a replacement but Trump ordered him out by Jan. 1.
Trump announced that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and the No. 2 at the Pentagon, would assume Mattis' duties and serve as Acting Secretary until the formal announcement of the nomination of a replacement.
Shanahan was to take over as acting secretary at midnight Monday in a conference call that will include Mattis, Pentagon officials said Friday.
Both Mattis and Shanahan have thus far avoided saying anything for the record on the transition, but Mattis in the past has been fulsome in his praise of Shanahan's work ethic and ability to stand in for him when he was out of town, despite Shanahan's inexperience in military and foreign affairs.
Shanahan's ability to perform in the new role quickly will be tested in what is likely to be a contentious series of Congressional hearings scheduled for January and the presentation of the Pentagon's budget, slated for February.
Through the Office of Management and Budget, Trump initially proposed 5 percent cuts to all government agencies in an effort to trim the deficit, but he has since shown willingness to increase the current $716 billion defense budget to possibly $750 billion.
That proposal may encounter opposition in a Democratic-controlled House.
It is unclear whether Shanahan is under consideration for a permanent post as defense secretary; Trump professed in a series of tweets last week there is an abundance of candidates for the job.
"I'll say that I've got everybody -- everybody and his uncle wants that position," Trump said. "And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt -- just so I won't be criticized for that last statement."
From the start of their relationship following Trump's election victory in November 2016, there were signs Trump and Mattis had policy differences.
When Trump introduced Mattis as his Defense Secretary nominee at his Bedminster, New Jersey, estate in December 2016, Trump said Mattis talked him out of the use of torture to extract information from terror suspects.
He said Mattis told him that he could get more out of a terror suspect with "a beer and a pack of cigarettes" than using torture.
Mattis has not gone on record on whether there were other policy differences, but his Dec. 20 letter of resignation made clear that he disagree with the Syria withdrawal decision.
"One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnership," Mattis said in what seemed to be a clear reference to Trump's frequent criticisms of NATO allies and South Korea for failing to pay more for mutual defense.
Mattis said the U.S. derived strength from the NATO alliance, and "NATO's 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof."
"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," Mattis said.
The letter was possibly most compelling for what it didn't say. Mattis left out the usual ‘thank you’ to the president for the opportunity to serve, traditionally found in high-level resignations from the federal government.
Many former diplomats and retired military officers have lined up behind Mattis and criticized what they call Trump's go-it-alone strategy for national defense, adding that it is a reversal of policy the U.S. has held since World War II.
Richard Haas, a former State Department envoy who now serves as president of the Council on Foreign Relations said on Twitter last week that Mattis' resignation added to the chaos in the Middle East, brought on by Trump's policy to limit U.S. engagement.
"Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Saudi continuation of the war in Yemen, Turkey preparing to attack Syrian Kurds,[Syrian President Bashar] Assad in power and ISIS anything but defeated, Iran expanding its regional reach, Russia the most influential external power: welcome to the post-American Middle East," Haas said.
Trump on Monday dismissed the critics. In a Tweet, the president said: "I am the only person in America who could say that, 'I'm bringing our great troops back home, with victory,' and get BAD press. It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!"
The praise for Mattis from the retired military ranks was not universal. Some wondered why he waited nearly two years before stepping down in protest of Trump's use of the military.
"At the end of the day, Mattis was a good Marine but what America needed was a good Secretary of Defense" on a range of issues, said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served two tours in Afghanistan.
Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. added that Mattis demeaned himself by backing Trump's decision to maintain business as usual with Saudi Arabia despite the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and by supporting "our frivolous deployment of troops to the border."
In his farewell message, Mattis pointed to the constancy of leadership at the Pentagon and warned troops against being distracted from their duties by the political backbiting in Washington.
"Our Department's leadership, civilian and military, remains in the best possible hands," he said. "I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life."
The first paragraph of Mattis' message quoted Abraham Lincoln on the need for the military to avoid distractions that hinder its operations.
"On Feb. 1, 1865, President Lincoln sent to General Ulysses S. Grant a one-sentence telegram. It read: Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plans," Mattis said in the message.
During the transition from Mattis to Shanahan, the military continued its commitment to alliances.
Last week, the Navy announced that the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, including troops of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, entered the 6th Fleet's area of operations in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
In a statement, Col. Michael Perez, 22nd MEU commander, said "we look forward to training with allied and partner military forces while also providing versatile, amphibious response options to our combatant commanders as we face myriad global challenges."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.