US secretary of defense James Mattis, a towering American icon and unparalleled supporter of ties with India, resigned on Thursday, day after the Trump administration abruptly announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, and told the president in a resignation letter he deserved someone at the Pentagon “whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Mattis has been the most enthusiastic and influential supporter of ties with India in the Trump administration, according to several Indian and US officials who spoke to Hindustan Times off the record over the past many months.
“His departure is a loss, we lost a champion,” said an Indian official. “This is through and through a Greek tragedy,” wrote Ashley Tellis, an Asia expert with think tank Carnegie, in an email response to a request for comments. “His departure is a big loss for the country: He was a towering center of sanity and the source of reassurance for America’s friends and allies. With him goes the last great champion of strong US-India ties in this administration.”
Mattis, like many other Trump aides and advisers, had opposed the pullout and tried one last time to persuade the president to reverse his decision at a meeting at the White House in the afternoon. But he failed, as the president was not only in no mood to relent but had dug in and was punching back even at close allies who were opposing him on the pullout.
Mattis had emerged as the strongest supporter of relations with India, specially after he urged lawmakers at a congressional hearing to amend a US law to grant India a waiver from sanctions targeting buyers of significant volumes of Russian military hardware.
The lawmakers agreed and changed the law — Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, better known by acronyms CAATSA — but a decision is still awaited. Not for Secretary Mattis though. It was settled issue for him. “We’ll sort out all those issues here today, and in the days ahead,” he told reporters during defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit recently and added, later, “We’ll work everything out, trust me.”
Later that day, Secretary Mattis hosted Minister Sitharaman at Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Asian Art for dinner that officials said was marked by personal touches from him that bore “testimony to his belief” in the relationship.
It was on Mattis’s watch that the Pacific Command of the US military was rechristened Indo-Pacific Command in a nod to growing ties with India and an acknowledgement of the increasing significance of India on the world stage and in America’s world view, with China as a shared challenge.
Benjamin Schwartz, a former Pentagon official who dealt with ties with India, cautioned, however, against overestimating the impact of Mattis’s exit on ties with India. “Mattis was a strong backer for sure, but the geopolitics of Asia incline most US officials responsible for national security to see India as an important partner,” he wrote in an email response.
“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 partnerships,” Mattis wrote in a letter addressed to Trump. “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.” That’s a resignation, and over differences.