NEWS ANALYSIS: The resignation of US Defense Secretary James Mattis has set off deep concern and another wave of uncertainty in Norway, as it has elsewhere. It also comes just as Norway is grieving a young Norwegian woman’s brutal murder in Morocco that’s been tied to the terrorist group IS, which Mattis’ boss, US President Donald Trump, seems to think has been defeated.
Mattis decided to quit late last week after Trump insisted on pulling US troops out of Syria, where they’d been fighting IS. Trump’s troop withdrawal was the proverbial last straw for Mattis after a long series of disagreements with Trump, who had chosen to claim that Mattis was merely retiring. Mattis, however, made his reasons clear in his letter of resignation that was published on the Pentagon’s own website (external link), and delivered some of the toughest criticism of Trump yet.
Mattis’ resignation was also quickly followed by the resignation of the US’ special envoy to the US-led coalition against IS, Brett McGurk. Like Mattis, McGurk strongly disagreed with Trump’s troop withdrawal and believes that it is “indefensible” to believe that IS has been beaten down. McGurk thus resigned in protest as well, which Trump not only then downplayed but suggested McGurk was merely trying to grab attention.
Norway feels IS’ ongoing influence
Norway, meanwhile, has become all too aware of the deadly and brutal force still behind IS. The group has been linked to, or at least inspired, 13 Moroccan men now under arrest and charged with the terror-related murders last week, described by police and Moroccan officials as “bestial,” of 28-year-old Maren Ueland of Rogaland and her 24-year-old Danish traveling companion Louisa Vesterager Jespersen while out hiking in the Atlas Mountains.
Many terror experts in Norway and abroad believe IS is far from defeated, and instead going after more “soft targets” like Ueland and Jespersen, whose remains were flown back to Denmark and Norway during the weekend. The fight against IS in Syria and elsewhere is not over, prompting a local Kurdish community in Oslo to plan a demonstration outside the US Embassy over the troop withdrawal in Syria.
Norwegian officials, like the majority of their colleagues in NATO, don’t want the US to pull out of Syria, either, while some call Trump’s withdrawal order his latest gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was delighted by the move.
Mattis’ departure ‘bad news for Norway’
Norway has long viewed the US as its most important ally, but the Trump Administration has put traditionally strong relations to the test. Mattis himself was widely viewed as a moderate, highly experienced and steady force within the Trump Administration, the last of the so-called “elders” who could command respect both in the White House and abroad. His looming departure is not good news in Norway.
“The US is important for NATO and important for Norway,” the director of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, Ulf Sverdrup, told news bureau NTB. “Trump has raised doubts about this engagement, while Mattis contributed towards reducing uncertainty about it.”
Sverdrup was especially concerned over how Mattis’ resignation letter both confirmed and highlighted Trump’s skepticism towards US allies, how he treats them and how he should show more respect for them. Mattis also stressed how the US must remain committed to the “Defeat-ISIS” coalition of 74 nations, just as it “must be resolute and unambiguous” in its approach to countries like China and Russia, which he believes “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”
Svredrup noted that if Trump doesn’t value that, “it’s bad news for Norway. There will be more uncertainty. There will be more uncertainty about NATO, and increased uncertainty about the US engagement towards Europe, and, perhaps, increased risk of instability.”
Svein Melby, a researcher at Norway’s institute for defense studies that’s tied to the Defense Department, agreed. “Mattis was seen, as least in our government, as a guarantor that everything Trump has said and done regarding US allies would not mean as much as the rhetoric would suggest.” Both of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s foreign ministers, Børge Brende and Ine Eriksen Søreide, have stressed that it’s most important to watch what the US is doing as opposed to what Trump is saying. Søreide herself told foreign correspondents in Oslo in late May that her ministry strives to “look beyond the Tweets” and work directly with, in its case, the US State Department’s professionals. Before that, when Søreide was defense minister, she focused on Mattis’ Pentagon.
“Therefore this (Mattis’ resignation) is worrisome for the US’ allies,” Melby told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Pentagon officials are also reportedly demoralized by Mattis’ resignation.
Losing an important friend
Norwegian government officials themselves have been restrained in their public reaction to Mattis’ resignation, which came just as the Parliament was closing for the Christmas holidays. Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen confirmed to NTB, however, that Mattis “has been important for Norway’s good relationship to the US. I have known him as a wise man with solid experience.” Bakke-Jensen noted that Mattis, a four-star general, was also “well-acquainted with the Norwegian defense system.”
Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, editorialized during the weekend that Mattis’ departure creates “great unease.” The newspaper minced no words in writing that while it was clear “a dangerous man” (Trump) had been elected as US president in 2016, it was comforting that several of the important positions around him (like Secretary of State and Defense Secretary) were staffed by “more moderate and sensible people.” Mattis “has been an important man in the work needed to calm US European allies.”
Now, however, Mattis has joined the long list of people who have either been fired by Trump or given up efforts to try to work with him. Trump has shown once again that he is not willing to listen to even his most highly respected and experienced advisers, like Mattis, Rex Tillerson or HR McMaster. “There’s no reason to believe,” Aftenposten added, that Mattis’ successor will have any influence either.
Norway has clearly lost an important friend in Mattis, as has NATO and its other member nations. Foreign Minister Søreide herself had praised both Tillerson and Mattis, claiming that Mattis had, until his resignation came, “met challenges in an effective manner,” and had “a very high standing both in Europe and globally.”
Mattis had offered to stay on until March 1, to ease the transition to a new Secretary of Defense. Trump, believed to be irritated by Mattis’ letter of resignation and its publication for all the world to read, simply appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to take over on as Acting Secretary from January 1. “He will be great!” Trump wrote on Twitter, his favoured method of communication. Others view Shanahan, a 30-year veteran of aircraft and defense contractor Boeing, as “the defense industry’s man,” and all that may imply.