Jim Mattis: 'Nations With Allies Thrive, Nations Without Allies Wither'

Sep 2, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 7:22 am

When former defense secretary Jim Mattis is asked about his relationship with President Trump, he has an answer ready.

"I don't discuss sitting presidents," Mattis tells NPR in an interview. "I believe that you owe a period of quiet."

But Mattis is expansive on what he describes as "misaligned" U.S. strategy in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The shifting policies and goals of successive administrations have contributed to the long, frustrating conflicts in the region, says Mattis, who is speaking out with the release of his book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.

"Sometimes we've gone in in order to stop terrorist attacks on America, and then we've shifted to 'We're going to bring democracy' and more or less impose democracy on certain countries that may or may not have all of the underpinnings necessary to be successful," he says.

Mattis spent four decades in the Marines. He served as a commander in Afghanistan shortly after the al-Qaida attacks in 2001. He was the head of Central Command, overseeing the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under President Obama. And he served as defense secretary for nearly two years under President Trump before resigning at the end of last year.

Defining goals

"What you have got to do is figure out what it is you intend to do at the outset [of a war] and then hold firm to that and don't half-step it," Mattis says. "I think that we have had serious policy challenges in figuring out exactly what it is we intend to do and then holding firm to that vision."

His criticism was directed broadly at U.S. warfighting over the past two decades. However, he left the Trump administration after the president declared that he wanted to pull U.S. forces out of Syria.

James Mattis spent four decades in the Marines. He served as a commander in Afghanistan shortly after the al-Qaida attacks in 2001.
Celeste Sloman for NPR

Those U.S. troops helped drive the Islamic State out of the territory it once held, but Mattis and other military leaders have indicated they would like to keep at least a small force in Syria — which remains the case so far.

Speaking about the U.S. wars in general, Mattis says:

"You may want a war over. You may declare it over. You may even try to walk away from it. But the bottom line is the enemy gets a vote, as we say in the military, and we simply have got to understand that terrorism is going to be an ambient threat. We're going to have to work with allies against ISIS and we're going to have to keep up the fight. I'd like to have a more positive message. But the fact is that's a reality we're going to face for our time."

Mattis also stressed the need for the U.S. to work closely with allies.

"Throughout history, we see nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither," he says.

Support of allies

Mattis notes that when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2001, Americans forces were joined by those from eight allied nations.

"They were alongside us because they shared the values, the sense that terrorism was a threat to everyone," Mattis says. "So when you go into these kind of situations, you need every ally you can get your hands on. You need all of them. You need their votes in the United Nations. You need their troops on the ground."

Trump has often criticized U.S. allies, and NATO in particular, saying that those countries are relying too heavily on the U.S. for their security.

Mattis says that when he was a senior military commander, "I didn't expect to be obeyed, but I expected to be heard. I think we have gotten into a position where our policies and our strategies have been misaligned to the problems, and part of the reason is we don't have a sufficiently strategic approach."

He says his remarks are not a "criticism of any one policy or any one leader," adding, "I bear no rancor."

The former defense secretary says he began writing the book with co-author Bing West in 2013, shortly after retiring from the Marines. Much of the book describes leadership lessons Mattis learned in the Marines and hopes to pass on. The manuscript was almost finished when Trump asked Mattis to become defense secretary, and the book includes relatively little about his time in the administration.

However, it does have the resignation letter Mattis delivered to Trump on Dec. 20 of last year. It reads in part: "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."

The breaking point was Trump's call to pull out of Syria, but it followed other policy disagreements, many of which appeared to be around the treatment of U.S. allies.

Disagreements on war policy

In the book, Mattis does detail some of his disagreements he had with the Bush and Obama administration.

In Chapter 15, entitled "Snatching Defeat From The Jaws of Victory," Mattis goes on at length about his advice that the U.S. should have kept at least a small force in Iraq rather than pull out completely in 2011. Mattis was then head of Central Command, overseeing the U.S. war efforts in Iraq.

However, "beginning with President Bush and continuing through the Obama administration, the White House was set on a total troop withdrawal, for political reasons," Mattis writes. "I argued strongly that any vacuum left in our wake would be filled by Sunni terrorists and Iran."

Mattis also recounts a meeting in Iraq with then-Vice President Joe Biden in the run-up to the U.S. withdrawal.

"He wanted our forces out of Iraq," Mattis writes. "Whatever path led there fastest, he favored. He exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly."

After the U.S. withdrew at the end of 2011, the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group, seized a large part of western and northern Iraq. President Obama reluctantly sent forces back to Iraq in 2014.

"All this was predicted — and preventable," Mattis adds.

Mattis tells a similar story about Afghanistan — where the U.S. has been negotiating with the Taliban on an American withdrawal.

President Obama said in 2011 that he would draw down troops in Afghanistan (in addition to the complete withdrawal in Iraq).

"I had been assigned two contradictory objectives," Mattis writes. "The forces under my command at CENTCOM were to degrade the Taliban while building up the Afghan army. They were also to withdraw on a strict timetable, independent of circumstances on the ground. We could do one or the other, but not both."

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James Mattis is reviewing a storied U.S. military career. It ended in late 2018 when Mattis resigned as secretary of defense. Before that, he spent four decades in the U.S. Marines. He took part in historic moments of the United States' long engagement in the Middle East and beyond. Mattis played front-line roles in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When a thousand U.S. Marines seized a part of Afghanistan from the Taliban in 2001, Mattis was in command. When a U.S. Marine division rolled into Iraq in 2003, Mattis was in charge again.

He rose to ever more senior positions and, while always following orders, voiced increasing dismay over U.S. strategy in the region he knew best. Mattis details much of his story in a new memoir, "Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead." And we will hear about that over the next two mornings because General Mattis is in our New York studios. Good morning, sir.

JIM MATTIS: Good morning, Steve. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you're with us. There's so much to discuss, but we have to begin at the ending because there's so much question about the way that you resigned. What was the difference of opinion with President Trump that prompted you to resign?

MATTIS: Well, Steve, I laid that out pretty clearly, I thought, in the letter that I handed to the president. And I'll just leave it at that. It was - the book, as you know, I began writing in 2013, and it was to pass on lessons I learned in leadership. And so the letter itself, when I submitted it, was simply that the president needed someone more aligned with his thinking. But that's about all I had to say about it.

INSKEEP: Although you've also been clear that it was a difference of opinion over a presidential decision in Syria that related to the way the United States would support allies in Syria, which is a major theme of this book and clearly a major theme of your career. What made the president's decision in Syria any worse than any other instances in which you may have disagreed with your superiors on that kind of issue?

MATTIS: Well, Steve, as you mentioned, I'm in your New York studios, and on 9/11, when our country was attacked, I did go into Afghanistan shortly thereafter. And alongside us were special forces from eight different nations. Now, those nations were not attacked. Canada and the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Jordan, Norway, Turkey - all these forces were alongside us because they shared the values, the sense that terrorism was a threat to everyone. So when you go into these kinds of situations, you need every ally you can get your hands on. You need all of them. You need their votes in the United Nations. You need their troops on the ground. This was an international effort. And I think throughout history, we see nations with allies thrive and nations without allies wither.

INSKEEP: Now, you have said you don't want to criticize a sitting president. We should say that you rarely mention the president by name in this book, but you do publish the letter of resignation. And you also write this. This is - these are your words, general. (Reading) A polemicist's role is not sufficient for a leader. And returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world.

The words on the page suggest to me that you do criticize the president.

MATTIS: You know, I mean, again, Steve, I started writing the book in 2013, and we were on version five, my co-author and I, Bing West, in 2017 thinking the book was pretty much done. I had never taken part in a political campaign. I'd never met Mr. Trump. And so you know, I'm saying what I stand for, what I learned over all these years. I want to pass on those lessons in a way that allows young people to learn. And you'll notice that I have seen challenges and problem with our strategy that go further back than any one president that's in office today.

INSKEEP: I do want to ask about your strategic sense, particularly in the region that you knew best. What is wrong with the U.S. long-term approach to that region?

MATTIS: Well, it's the most complex security issues that I think I've dealt with. They're all caught up in that region right now. It's not that there is something inherently wrong. It's whether or not we've clarified our policy in our own minds - and are we able to carry it out in a strategically sound manner?

For example, I think it was Einstein who said, if given an hour to save the world, how would he compose his thinking? And he said, well, I'd take 55 minutes to define the problem, and then I'd save the world in five minutes. I think we need to do a better job of ordering the problems, disciplining the problems and defining them in a way that we get agreement on what is the problem we're trying to solve.

INSKEEP: Is this a fair summary of your disagreement with U.S. political leaders in both Afghanistan and Iraq - in each cases, you have seen a long-term problem that calls for a long-term commitment, a troop commitment somewhat like the U.S. has had in South Korea, say, and you've had political leaders who want to get in and get out?

MATTIS: Well, the problem we face is when you get into a war - we were attacked on 9/11, for example. And what you have got to do is figure out what it is you intend to do at the outset and then hold firm to that. And I think that we have had serious policy challenges in figuring out exactly what it is we intend to do and then holding firm to that vision.

INSKEEP: You describe disagreeing specifically with then-Vice President Joe Biden over the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 and say that you expected that the U.S. would have to be drawn back in.

MATTIS: Well, that wasn't my assessment alone. The intelligence community came in. I was briefed, and I still remember one of the young ladies briefing me from the intelligence community. And she outright guaranteed me that if we withdrew all of our troops at the time and on the timeline that was being discussed, we would have to go back in because the enemy would surge and they would become a threat to us again. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what happened.

INSKEEP: I guess we should describe - Vice President Biden had a difference of opinion with you about the value of the then-Iraqi prime minister and whether he would be supportive of a continued U.S. troop presence. Did Vice President Biden misread the situation in some way?

MATTIS: You know, all leaders have got to be able to build trust. I did not believe that the Iraqi prime minister was a man who could build trust. And if you can't do that, especially under the stresses that Iraq was going through, it was in a - virtually in a post-combat but pre-reconciliation phase. And we're not always going to be blessed to have a Mandela man type person, like Mandela brought South Africa back together. You're not always going to have that sort of leader. But I felt the man who was in - that we were backing at that time was especially deficient in trust-building ability.

INSKEEP: There is one question of fact that I want to ask you about President Trump. You want to have a long-term vision. You want to think long term. In your experience, did the president of the United States have a long-term strategic sense in the areas that you knew best?

MATTIS: Well, Steve, I'm going to frustrate you on this. I don't discuss sitting presidents in terms of making political assessments. National defense is a nonpartisan issue, and I want to keep the Department of Defense in a nonpartisan mode. That's how we get Republican...

INSKEEP: Yeah. And that's why I'm not even - I understand that and respect that. And so I'm not even asking you is this a good president or a bad president. I'd just like to know, in your interactions, does this president think long term?

MATTIS: The long-term nature of what we do is carried out not just by the president, also by the - especially the secretary of state. And no doubt, the president's secretary of state does think long term - and by the secretary of defense and our military-to-military relationships that are, in many cases, very, very strong today - even stronger with some nations today than they were two or four years ago.

INSKEEP: Your answer, then, is that the people around the president are thinking long term. Is that what you're telling me, general?

MATTIS: Well, the president has hired people to do this very job, yes.

INSKEEP: Jim Mattis spent decades in the U.S. Marines, fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq and served as President Trump's secretary of defense until his resignation. His book is called "Call Sign Chaos." And tomorrow we hear how Mattis organized his role in the war in Iraq, what the U.S. planned for and didn't. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.