The former Marine General is regarded in defence circles as the last, long-standing voice of reason, experience and credibility among President Donald Trump’s inner circle of top security officials.
His exit in February will be felt particularly starkly by Britain because Mattis has been the UK’s key conduit when dealing with the Trump administration.
He has deep ties with many serving and former senior British military officers, including General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff.
Tobias Ellwood, a British defence minister and friend of Mattis’s, used Twitter to express his regret. “Very sorry to see Jim Mattis stepping down,” he wrote.
“Trusted, respected and admired by friends and allies. Feared and revered by our foes. The most impressive military mind I’ve had the honour to know. Jim my friend – our world will be less safe without you.”
In a frank resignation letter to the president that was published on Thursday, Mattis signalled what his departure will likely mean – a White House even less concerned about supporting alliances such as NATO and working with partners like the UK.
He also signposted his utter frustration at Trump’s decision on Wednesday – against the advice of his defence secretary – to order the complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria.
This move, which caught all allies in a 70-plus, US-led coalition of nations against Islamic State by surprise, is thought to have been the reason Mattis handed in his notice.
“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,” he wrote.
“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.
“Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policemen of the world. Instead we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defence, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.”
Trump’s Syria decision, made without consulting allies such as the UK, runs contrary to Mattis’s message of the importance of allies and of leadership.
The former four-star officer went even further in the letter.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” he wrote.
The president by contrast has no comparable experience of conflict and global affairs.
“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” Mattis wrote.
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence 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 departure of a man who has helped to constrain Trump’s wilder ideas, such as pulling out of the NATO alliance and ostracising the United States’ closest allies, means this administration’s lurching unpredictability will become even more volatile unless someone of a similar stature can be found who is willing to take his place.
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