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Newsmaker interviews

Reuters Newsmaker: Former Defense Secretary Mattis sees challenges and perseverance ahead for U.S.

Speaking at a Reuters Newsmaker event, former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned of potential challenges facing the U.S., but also expressed confidence in the American people to face them.

Indeed, Mattis warned that rising national debt and a political climate of “contempt” were bigger threats to the U.S. than any foreign army. “No nation in history has maintained its security, its freedom, its liberty, its military power if it didn’t keep its fiscal house in order,” Mattis said during a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York last week.

Mattis said that the divisiveness passing as political discussion these days was really paralysis, and he cautioned, paraphrasing a quote from Abraham Lincoln, that “if we’re going to ruin this great big experiment you and I call America, it’ll be by suicide. We’ll do it to ourselves.”

The event was hosted by Reuters Editor-at-Large Sir Harold Evans, and featured Mattis and former assistant secretary of defense and Marine combat veteran F.J. “Bing” West, co-authors of the new book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. The two shared perspectives on conflicts spanning three presidencies, on current events, and on the dangers to the U.S. of going it alone in an increasingly complex world.

Strength in alliances

Mattis repeatedly touched on the importance of allies during the event, returning to a theme he emphasized in his resignation letter to President Trump last December. “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 in the letter, cautioning that the U.S. could not “protect our interests… without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

Unsurprisingly, the now-retired four-star general used stories of combat and geo-political tensions at the event to further demonstrate the value of allies.

In November 2001, just months after the September 11 attacks, Mattis was commanding troops stationed on warships cruising in the North Arabian Sea some 400 miles south of an airfield target near Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold in southern Afghanistan. A thousand U.S. soldiers launched from the warships, attacking and securing the airfield in the deepest amphibious assault in U.S. military history. “Bottom line is, I could’ve gone deeper. I could’ve gone another 300 miles if I wanted to,” Mattis said.

Allies were critical to fighting in southern Afghanistan and eventually isolating Kandahar, Mattis explained, pointing out that the U.S. troops were coordinating in battle with troops from NATO countries — representing a 50-year-old alliance. “It just shows why you need alliances, why America’s strength is tied directly to the level of trust we can create among allies.”

In dealing with Iran, what Mattis called “not a nation-state but a revolutionary cause”, finding common ground with allies is the only way to confront the challenges there. “Trying to do this unilaterally is not going to work.”

Like many former aides and officials of the Trump Administration, Mattis has refused to criticize the president by name or assess his politics now or during the period he served in his cabinet. As a former military leader, Mattis said he observes a “long-standing, 200-plus-year tradition” of the military refraining from political assessments. However, he did suggest there may come a time when he weighs in on policy.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs “Bing” West. REUTERS/Gary He

Adding a military voice to the political narrative, he said, would be “one more bit of gasoline on a fire that is unhelpful right now.”

He was clear, however, on his view that the U.S. needs to support human rights globally, including the protesters in Hong Kong. “When people stand up for those (rights), I just inherently think we ought to stand with them, even if it’s just moral,” he said. He criticized China for proposing a law that would allow it to extradite people from Hong Kong. “(China) said it would be two systems, and the extradition law was a violation” of the one country/two systems agreement that ended British control of its former colony in 1997.

Mattis also said he was surprised by news that the Trump Administration invited the Taliban to Camp David for talks to end the war in Afghanistan, adding that presidents since George W. Bush have tried and failed to convince the Taliban to abandon its support of al Qaeda. “All wars eventually come to an end. I salute people that try to bring wars to an end,” but with no verifiable progress toward breaking that alliance, the meetings were a surprise, Mattis said.

While unwilling to wade in on whether formal action under the Constitution against President Trump was warranted, he expressed his “confidence in the American people” and a “hardy” U.S. Constitution. “If we will employ our Constitutional checks and balances correctly, this big experiment (American democracy) will continue,” he said.

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