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Defense Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon on Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced Thursday that he will step down, after two difficult years in which he and President Trump were often not on the same page. Mattis underscored their differences in his resignation letter, telling Trump he had the right to a defense secretary with more closely aligned views.

Why it matters: Mattis was a traditionalist who believed in an international order led by the United States, in respecting and supporting its allies, and in keeping its commitments. His departure leaves the administration without an experienced, centrist foreign policy hand.

Disagreements over the U.S. troop presence in Syria and the politically motivated deployment along the U.S.–Mexico border may have been the last straws on a camel's back long close to breaking. Mattis also reportedly opposed the reductions to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan Trump has sought.

The bottom line: Although Mattis had been relegated to the periphery of Trump's policymaking, he remained a reassuring presence to U.S. allies. Trump would be best served by a successor to Mattis who can make the case for America's active role on the world stage, as tensions in the Middle East, East Asia and beyond are likely to further test his administration.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “A World in Disarray.”

Go deeper

Updated 49 mins ago - Politics & Policy

House cancels Thursday session as FBI, Homeland Security warn of threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says extremists have discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

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Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).