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Mattis’ departure will be felt keenly in 2019

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Christmas is finally over. After the many church services, holiday parties, town-wide celebrations and parades, and the final family dinners and exchange of presents on Christmas, all that remains the day afterwards is to throw away the trash, start eating the leftovers and getting back to the real world.

Not that the real world is looking all that good right now. The stock market is tanking, the Trump world is imploding as federal prosecutors uncover a lot of corruption by the president and within the administration, and polls show that more Americans than ever believe the country is “headed in the wrong direction.”

Last week was particularly rough, even as Christmas celebrations reached their climax. More presidential associates were sentenced to prison, more damaging revelations exposed more lies and crimes, the president announced withdrawal of American military forces from Syria and a draw-down of forces from Afghanistan by mid-year against the advice of his military and national security advisers, and the erratic president confounded both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders by rejecting a compromise budget deal he had earlier accepted.

A partial government shutdown began, egged on by Trump’s irresponsible insistence on $5 billion for his useless wall along the southern border.

I was dismayed, in the midst of all this craziness, when Defense Secretary James Mattis submitted his resignation Thursday, delivered with the directness and clarity appropriate to a former general. For the last two years, Mattis has been the adult among juveniles, largely controversy-free. He is credited with helping America keep her commitments and support her allies, as well as for helping to rein in Trump’s worst impulses.

For Mattis, the breaking point was Trump’s unilateral decision to leave Syria, claiming premature victory against ISIS and abandoning the Kurdish rebel allies who have been fighting and dying against the so-called Islamic State. The announced withdrawal was hailed by America’s foes, the Russians and the Iranians, who are also involved militarily in Syria and those influences in the region will increase as the United States backs out.

In a meeting with the president, Mattis handed Trump a two-page letter that laid bare the differences between them, including the value of U.S. leadership in strategic alliances, especially NATO and the 74-nation coalition against Muslim terrorism, and hinted at other objections to the White House’s handling of challenges posted by Russia and China.

“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these an other subjects,” Mattis wrote, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress reacted with alarm. There are numerous major foreign policy decisions coming in 2019 with strategic military implications, and Trump on his own has not shown skill in dealing with their complexities. Far from making America great again, he is shrinking America’s role and reputation in the world.

“This is scary,” tweeted Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”

Beyond whether any one decision is right or wrong, stability and wisdom are most needed in the White House now as political pressures and federal investigations squeezing the president make him more unpredictable and erratic. The rebuke by voters in the midterm election has only made Trump more unstable, not chastened, and Mattis was one of only a handful of people who had even the remote chance of keeping the president’s behavior’s within civilized norms.

With all this going on nationally, Christmas was a welcomed distraction. It reminded us that love and good cheer still abound in our homes and communities. It was also a timely reminder that the God who changed human history through the birth of a child in Bethlehem is still in charge — and will remain in charge when the now empty packages and wrappings are swept up, the trees taken down and the decorations are packed away.

That faith will be sorely tested in 2019. And as last week demonstrated, it will also be most sorely needed in the craziness ahead.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.