Mattis Calls on Biden to Scrap 'America First' Policy, Slow Pullout from Afghanistan

In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis waits outside the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis waits outside the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has broken his silence on the election with a public call to President-elect Joe Biden to alter the course of current defense policy.

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.

"To dismiss U.S. 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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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 the confrontational tone.

"In January, when President Joe Biden and his national security team begin to reevaluate U.S. 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, a long-time collaborator and now director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; retired Adm. Jim Ellis, former head of U.S. 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 U.S. troops to 2,500 in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15.

This move must be reevaluated, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."

The Foreign Affairs article 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 U.S. military advantage," the authors wrote.

"The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. 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.

"As capable as the U.S. military is, the United States' principal adversaries are more constrained by its network of alliances than by its military might," they wrote.

The article urged the new Biden administration to show more deference to allies' concerns in joining with the U.S. 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 U.S.' major competitor, while facing down the threat to avoid war.

The goal of the U.S. should "not only be to deter great-power war but to seek great-power peace and cooperation in advancing shared interests. For that, the United States' alliances and partnerships are especially crucial," the authors wrote.

The author's concerns about a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan have also been expressed by some Trump supporters.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff and a Vietnam veteran, said he has had discussions with Trump and Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, on the risks posed by drawing down in Afghanistan at the planned scale.

Keane said he expressed his concerns to Miller when the U.S. reduced its troop presence in Afghanistan from 8,000 to 4,500 over the summer.

"And I asked him, because I do have contact with him, I said, 'Scotty, I mean, that's kind of low,'" Keane said in an American Enterprise Institute podcast Nov. 19.

He said Miller replied: "I've got people here I really don't need. I want to get them out of here because they're not contributing overall to success; it's just nice to have. This is the lowest I can go and still maintain essential missions."

While disagreeing with the drawdown to 2,500 troops, Keane said Trump had stopped short of his initial impulse to order a complete withdrawal.

"I know that, from my own interactions with him on the subject, and I know as recently as last week, he still wanted to pull out of Afghanistan and he had people telling him, largely the new people brought into the Pentagon, telling him that we can get down to zero," said Keane, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War.

"And certainly he was inclined to do that, but he didn't do it."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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