Full transcript: Defense Secretary James Mattis’ interview with The Islander

After obtaining his contact information through its accidental exposure by the Washington Post, The MIHS Islander contacted Secretary of Defense James Mattis for an interview. Two companion pieces to this article, a description and reflection on the experience of getting and conducting the interview as well as a feature on the connection between education and radicalization according to Mattis, have been published online.

Mattis is a retired four-star Marine Corps general who additionally spent time as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation and commander of the United States Central Command responsible for operations in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and Central Asia, from 2010 to 2013.


TEDDY: What subject areas do you think students should be studying in high school and beyond to better prepare themselves to be politically active and aware adults?

MATTIS: Actually, I’ve thought a lot about that question. I would tell you that no matter what you’re going to go into, whether it be business or politics or international relations or domestic politics, I don’t think you can go wrong if you maintain an avid interest in history. The reason I say that is you’ll find that really, there’s nothing new under the sun, other than some of the technology we use.

History will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask.

The human condition, the aspirations, the dreams, the problems that are associated with being social animals, not being a hermit and living alone, but having to interact with others, whether it be your local school district, your community, your state, your county, your national, your international relations, history will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues. I wish now looking back on it, if I’d known what waited for me in life, I would have put a lot more attention into history.

TEDDY: What advice would you give to a current high schooler that is scared about what they see on the news and concerned for the future of our country?

MATTIS: Probably the most important thing is to get involved. You’ll gain courage when you get involved. You’ll gain confidence, you’ll link with people, some of whom will agree with you and some won’t, and as a result, you’ll broaden your perspective. If you do that, especially if you study history, you realize that our country has been through worse and here’s how they’ve found their way through that.

Especially if you study history, you realize that our country has been through worse.

Here’s what leaders did, here’s what educators did, here’s what business people did, here’s what soldiers did, here’s what politicians did, and you can sometimes see, by weaving together that tapestry, how to go forward. You lose your paralysis, you lose your, I would almost call it unproductive worry, and you replace it with productive action.

TEDDY: You were quoted recently in the The New Yorker as saying that what worried you most in your new position as secretary of defense was “The lack of political unity in America.” How do you believe younger generations of Americans should be working towards improving America’s political climate?

TEDDY: What will the nature of American warfare and conflict look like for my peers entering the military now and in the future?

MATTIS: There’ll be two fundamental thrusts I think. One is, some things will endure. The fundamental nature of war, you go all the way back to Thucydides who wrote the first history and it was of a war and he said it’s fear and honor and interest and those continue to this day. What he wrote over 2,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, that still consumes people. That’s what I meant about studying history.

You go all the way back to Thucydides who wrote the first history and it was of a war and he said it’s fear and honor and interest and those continue to this day.

But the technology and the way wars are fought, they’re like chameleons, a dead German guy wrote, and it changes constantly, especially when you mix technology and all. But it’s still full of fear and courage, cowardice and duplicity, treachery, and clarity, honesty and confusion. It’s a fundamental and predictable phenomenon. So just mix in all the new technologies, the way a society thinks, and you put all that together and out of it comes a non-quantifiable that results in victory or defeat.

So it’s hard to say, It’ll certainly be aspects that are in outer space and in the cyber domain that were not there before. We fought on this planet mostly with ground armies until navies became something one hundred years ago. Air forces joined and now in the last ten years, we’ve added space and cyber. So it’ll be a very complex domain, or environment. There are five different domains. Precision will no longer be dominated by the Americans due to the spread in technology so it’ll be a pretty challenging environment and we’ll have to see if we can raise enough Americans who are willing to take on the danger and discomfort. So far, we’ve had no need to lower our enlistment standards as a lot of volunteers continue to join even without a draft to force them in.

TEDDY: You said as a nominee for secretary of defense that the military had to be more lethal, but how does diplomacy play a role in your position when dealing with foreign powers?

MATTIS: The way that you get your diplomats listened to in an imperfect world is you make certain you back them up with hard power. The reason I say that is, as much as I’d like to live in a world where people who are out to do others harm would be willing to listen to rational thought, not everyone is.

The reason I say that is, as much as I’d like to live in a world where people who are out to do others harm would be willing to listen to rational thought, not everyone is.

So what you have to do is make certain that your foreign policy is led by the diplomats, not by the military. I meet for breakfast once a week with Secretary of State Tillerson and I’ll advise him on the military factors for his foreign policy, but I do not believe that military issues should lead in foreign policy. I think that’s where diplomats lead and the military then reinforces the diplomats.

TEDDY: How will the U.S. help rebuild Arab countries after ISIS is inevitably defeated? How can the U.S. avoid creating power vacuums?

MATTIS: Well the first thing, I think is your thesis Teddy. Secretary Tillerson ran a conference here about seven weeks ago on Washington D.C. and it was the Defeat ISIS Coalition, so of course I spoke at it because I coordinate the military aspects. It was 65 countries, it was Interpol, the international police organization that tracks the foreign fighters for all the world’s police departments. It was the European Union, the Arab league, and also now NATO as of last week, has joined the Defeat ISIS Coalition. The point I would make there is that, you don’t have to have the Americans do it all. There are many nations that said, if you will lead, we will contribute. For example, we had contributions, donations, committed to heavily by the Sunni Arab nations to the tune of several billion dollars.

The point I would make there is that, you don’t have to have the Americans do it all.

I think what you want to do is, the Americans can lead it in terms of organization because many nations don’t trust each other as much as they trust America, no matter what you read in the newspapers right now. We spent 85 percent of the Defeat ISIS meeting not talking about the military aspects, but talking about what you’re asking about, which is how do we stop this from just sprouting a new group. And that’s going to be an international effort and we likened it, if you’ve read about the Marshall plan after World War II when the Americans, three years after we defeated the fascists in Germany, the Nazis in Germany the fascists in Japan, we turn around three years later, 36 months later, and offered to help them rebuild.

And look at us today, where Germany and Japan are two of our strongest allies in the United Nations, in NATO, in the Pacific. I think what you want to do is look at the Marshall Plan, but instead of the American’s carrying the full burden or even the heaviest burden, look at all the nations in the world since many nations have become wealthy since World War II, and see it as being an international effort.

TEDDY: We actually just studied Marshall Plan in my world history class.

MATTIS: Oh great. You know what I’m talking about then when we put together the United Nations, that was really American leadership but we did it with others. United Nations, we had Bretton Woods, you know the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, we put together NATO for the military alliance to defend our values. All of that grew out of that great World War II generation that, like it or not, were part of a world. We can’t just be isolationist like we were after World War I.

TEDDY: How can the US defeat an ideology?

MATTIS: I think the most important thing on that is probably education. An economic opportunity has to be there as well. On the education, I sometimes wonder how much better the world would be if we funded for nations where they have ideology problems, where the ideologies are hateful, full of hatred. I wonder what would happen if we turned around and we helped pay for high school students, a boy and girl at each high school in that country to come to America for one year and don’t do it just once, but do it ten years in a row. Every high school whether it be in Afghanistan or Syria or wherever, would send one boy and one girl for one year to Mercer island or to Topeka, Kansas or wherever.

I think ideologies can be countered by showing people a better education and hope for the future

It wouldn’t cost that much if you had sponsoring families that would take them in. Most American families are very generous, unless they’ve lived in places where they’ve adopted kind of a selfish style. But, that’s only a few pockets of the country that really have that bad. Although they’re big pockets in terms of population, most of the country is not like that. I bet we could do that. I think ideologies can be countered by showing people a better education and hope for the future by learning how to get along with one another. And for all of our problems in our country, we’re probably still the best example of that in the world.

TEDDY: Why do you believe organizations like USAID and the Millennium Challenge are so important to foreign policy and for preventing conflict? What do you think will happen if a new budget cuts that funding?

MATTIS: First of all, the budget. There’s nothing in the constitution that says the president sends a budget to congress. I’ve read the constitution a couple times and Article I of the constitution says it’s up to congress how much to tax, and how much of the money in the budget goes where. So, we’ve fallen into this in the last 70 years or so where the president sends a proposed budget to congress and they can do with it what they wish. Congress will not probably tolerate all those cuts anyway.

As Winston Churchill put it, once the American people exhaust all the alternatives, they’ll do the right thing. I think we’ll see the right thing done on this.

But the bottom line is that in some cases, we admit, there’s been a large amount of waste, I understand that. But I think the solution is to fix those programs and to try to make the programs work, make them something the American people can be proud of. In many parts of the country, there is crumbling infrastructure, there are schools that need help and all. So I think once in awhile, people understand if we want to vote people into office that say “let’s stop this, stop working on other people’s problems.” But I think eventually, as Winston Churchill put it, once the American people exhaust all the alternatives, they’ll do the right thing. I think we’ll see the right thing done on this.

TEDDY: Do you believe that Middle Eastern theocracies can be more moderate? If so, what steps can be taken to achieve this?

MATTIS: There’s really a couple ways of looking at that. One thing is, which ones are trying to moderate now. I’ll give you an example. I was talking to the king of Saudi Arabia, he’s dead now, but was the king a couple years ago, and he said the only way to improve drivers in Riyadh was to give every girl above the age of 16 a driver’s license because the men are such bad drivers.

If you want to really change it in the long term, I think it comes down to doing so through education of the young people.

Now he had a sense of humor, but his point was he had to move the society in that direction. It’s a very conservative society so what the king did was in effect to what I said earlier. He decided he would give his boys and girls a four-year scholarship to any college in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States. Now he didn’t tell his people that they had to send the girls overseas to college. But you can imagine how many girls ended up coming to America because they wanted that education. He had over 100,000 four-year, free-ride scholarships going off to Ontario, Canada, and London, England, and University of Colorado and University of Washington and everywhere else.

And so his idea on the way to do it was through education. I think that’s probably the most enduring way. Other things are shorter term and certainly they can work for short term, but if you want to really change it in the long term, I think it comes down to doing so through education of the young people.

TEDDY: Obviously the U.S. has had trouble in major conflicts in recent years particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, how can the government handle conflicts differently so interventions can be of greater success?

MATTIS: I think the first thing, if you go back a few years, what you’ll find, there’s a great article written in The Atlantic I recommend to you. I believe it was July of 2013 and it’s written by the former President Emeritus of Dartmouth University Jim Wright. He said, “what did we learn from the Korean war?” If you look at the wars from probably Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, dare I say Afghanistan, every time we go into a war and we don’t figure out what the political end state is, we get into wars and we don’t know how to end them. Then you’ve got a real problem.

Every time we go into a war and we don’t figure out what the political end state is … we don’t know how to end them.

The most important thing is, if you have to go to war, then do everything you can not to go to war if at all possible. Then you’ve got to get the political end state right or you’ll never figure out how to end it successfully. War is such a tragedy and because in our society those decisions are made by civilians, and not by military, you’ve got to get that part right up front. Notice I left one war out and that was Desert Storm. In that war, President Bush, the first President Bush, said “we’re not going to tolerate a nation being taken over,” and went to war. And we went in, kicked them out of Kuwait, freed Kuwait, and then he would not go any further.

Some people said “oh we’re winning let’s charge into Baghdad.” He said “nope. all we’re going to do is free Kuwait.” Now, he got a lot of heat for that. But, we went in with more troops than we needed and we ended it quickly, because he had the political end state right.

The short answer is, get the political end state right and then give it the full effort and explain to the American people and the American congress what you’re doing and get the whole world behind you. Even the Russians helped us in that war by the way. They told us exactly what their radars they’d given Saddam Hussein could do so we knew where we could fly through the radar coverage. Even the Russians were on our side in that war. That shows what happens when you get the political end state right, unlike Korea, Vietnam, Iraq that sort of thing.

TEDDY: How can the United States create an atmosphere of trust with the Arab people, especially in Iran?

MATTIS: That’ll be a little tough, since it’s not really an election. It’s the supreme leader decides who gets to run. It would be like having the current American president decide who gets to run in the next campaign, and by the way, when they come in he stays in the White House and the others just kind of rotate through. So the point is that this is a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to best interests of their own people so it’s very, very hard.

What you have to do eventually is what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, which was to move sanctions, economic sanctions, against them and force them to the negotiating table because they want to stay in power.

They tried to murder an Arab ambassador in downtown Washington D.C. for example. And so, you can see why President Obama was so anxious to try to block them on getting a nuclear weapon. Until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy, these guys who think they can tell the people even which candidates they get a choice of. It’s going to be very, very difficult. This is a regime that employs surrogates, like Lebanese Hezbollah to threaten Israel, to murder the former Lebanese prime minister, murder Israeli tourists in Bulgaria which caused the European Union to put more severe sanctions on Iran than the Americans have ever put on Iran.

Right now, they’ve moved ballistic missiles down to Yemen that were shot into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. It’s going to be very hard to deal with them. What you have to do eventually is what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, which was to move sanctions, economic sanctions, against them and force them to the negotiating table because they want to stay in power.

I think too there’s a way to make certain that we don’t confuse this regime, which is a murderous regime, and remember it has killed a lot of Iranian people and locked up in jail a lot of young Iranians when they demonstrated against them in the Green Revolution a few years ago. You cannot confuse them with the regime. The Iranian people are not the problem. The Iranian people are definitely not the problem, it’s the regime that sends agents around to murder ambassadors in Pakistan or in Washington DC. It’s the regime that provides missiles to Lebanese Hezbollah or the Houthi in Yemen.

So somehow, you don’t want to unite the Iranian people with that unpopular regime because if you pressure them both then they will grow together. We’ve got to make certain that the Iranian people know that we don’t have any conflict with them. I’d start with that.

TEDDY: Is Iran the most dangerous country in the Middle East?

MATTIS: It’s certainly the country that is the only reason Assad has been able to stay in power. For example, for so long when Russia vetoed the United Nations so they couldn’t do anything about it, the only reason that Assad is still in power and has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and allowed the terrorists a place to set up camp and millions, literally millions of people, forced out of their homes with nothing but what they could cram into a car or put on their back, it’s all because of Iran.

Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.

Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East and when I would travel to Cairo or Tel Aviv or Riyadh and from Arabs from Jews, all the people in the region, that is their view of Iran. It certainly was my biggest problem when I was the commander of U.S. Central Command. But again, it’s not Iran, it’s the Iranian regime. Most of the Iranian people, I’ve known enough Iranian people or talked to Americans who grew up in Iran and it’s not them, it’s the regime.

TEDDY: Are these any lesser known players in Syria supporting Assad in Iran?

MATTIS: Nobody. The only reason that Assad is still in power is Russia’s diplomatic veto, Iran’s military power, and now Russia’s military power. Without those two, the Syrian people would have run him out five years ago.

TEDDY: Why do they continue to support him? What history between Russia and Iran are influencing their relationship today?

MATTIS: There’s a lot of reasons for it. One is, the Russians have had military bases, military relationships there for the last 30 to 40 years, so there’s a certain kinship. Another one is that Russia right now has chosen to be a strategic competitor with NATO and with the United States, so this is an area they can compete in although frankly between U.S. military and the Russian military, we maintain very open communications with each other as we try to deconflict our operations.

It’s hard to say why but clearly it’s not in their best interest and I think Russia realizes that.

Because we’re not engaged in the fight to get rid of Assad, we’re just there fighting ISIS whereas the Russians are there, they say to fight ISIS. They haven’t fought them much and mostly they just support Assad. It’s hard to say why but clearly it’s not in their best interest and I think Russia realizes that. They’re trying to figure out how to get out of it now.

TEDDY: Do you think the Middle East can become stable in the future? If so, how?

MATTIS: There are moderate regimes in the Middle East. The king of Jordan, clearly a moderating influence. The Emirates, the United Arab Emirates, I think almost a quarter of their ministers, what we would call secretaries of departments, are women. Everybody drives there, men, women, whatever. They’re a modern country. There are moderates you know, Kuwait, they have a very restive legislature parliament. They get in a lot of arguments and pass laws the king doesn’t like, but he’s got to live by them. I think what you have to have is every political system has to have a counter balance.

There’s a carrying capacity in any society for how much change it can incorporate at any one time. If you study history you can see Lincoln calculating it, you see FDR calculating it, in our own country that is.

By having everybody feel like they’ve got a sense of the future and a stake in the future, especially the young people, you can create a positive environment economically, politically, and diplomatically with their outreach to other countries that can help stabilize things. But they’ve got a big, big youth bulge right now and they do not have the economy to absorb it. So they have got to open up into a more market driven economy as the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia put it, he’s trying to change fast from a consumer economy to a productive economy and that is a revolutionary effort. There’s a carrying capacity in any society for how much change it can incorporate at any one time. If you study history you can see Lincoln calculating it, you see FDR calculating it, in our own country that is.

And so they’ve got to see if they can change fast enough to answer the bona fide, genuine challenges that their young people are going to bring them. I think that’s mostly economic but it also includes a political counterweight so people who don’t agree have a place to turn to other than picking up a gun.

TEDDY: How has the Trump administration handled the Middle East differently than the Obama administration?

MATTIS: I was a NATO officer and then a central command officer under President Obama and he was trying to reach out to the Arab people. He unfortunately didn’t always have the best advisors or he didn’t listen to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so we missed some opportunities there. But I think also under the Obama administration, there was a more of an accelerated campaign against the terrorists than perhaps the Obama administration was willing to sustain.

[President Obama] unfortunately didn’t always have the best advisors or he didn’t listen to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so we missed some opportunities there.

I think the two administrations are more variations on a theme than they are dramatically different approaches. Obviously, the Israelis and the Arabs seem to have warmed more to Mr. Trump, especially over the succeeding years after the first year of the Obama administration where it actually went pretty well. Year by year, things went worse and worse from the Arabs and the Israelis perspectives.

TEDDY: How close are you as soldiers right now to combat? You’re acting as advisors to Iraqi special operations units in Mosul but does the U.S. plan on having a larger occupying force or do we continue to use special operations in a limited role to teach Iraqis and Arabs to better combat terror groups?

MATTIS: Well we have a lot more than just special forces up there. We got air force there, Naval forces there, we have Army and Marines in various countries helping to put the pressure on them, bring fire support to bear. We’ve got advisors in what we call Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and what those are, Teddy, are the guys in, they’re usually pilots or trained to call these air support and they’re right on the front line.

We’re with them in combat, but it’s through them we’re taking the fight to the enemy.

So there’s definitely combat going on right now. But our strategic approach is what we call, by with, through. So we’re attacking the enemy by supporting the local forces who eventually have to solve the problem anyway. We’re with them in combat, but it’s through them we’re taking the fight to the enemy. By, with, through. And we do things with our allies not to our allies. It varies from one battlefield to another right now, but there are varying numbers of conventional forces and special forces in the advisory roles, the assist roles. We call it advise, assist, and accompany.

TEDDY: Do you believe the international community needs to provide greater assistance in combating terror? Trump has consistently criticized nations, especially, those a part of NATO, as not paying their fair share. Is this true and do countries need to help the U.S. more in Middle Eastern conflicts?

MATTIS: Back under President Bush, I was a NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, which means I commanded forces from 25 NATO countries plus about 40 other countries that are called partners with NATO, since many nations from Singapore and Japan to Columbia, South America, and the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, had partnerships in NATO because they all want to be associated with NATO. And back under President Bush he said you’ve got to pay more. I’ve sat behind then Secretary of Defense Gates who said the American people are not going to keep paying more than you for this defense.

The way I put it to [the NATO countries] was, you cannot expect American parents to care more about your children’s future than you care.

Then when President Obama came in, they made the exact same argument and so what President Trump has done, perhaps in a blunter fashion, is he has said the same thing. It’s not a new concern, and by the way as of a year ago, the NATO nations began paying more. They all signed a pledge in October of last year to commit 2 percent of their GDP to the defense, in building up their defense. So right now there’s five nations in NATO including ourselves, who are paying 2 percent. By next year, I think it’ll be 9 and there’s a number of nations that all agree they’re going to keep right on growing theirs to the agreed upon 2 percent. Being part of a country or an alliance like that is a little bit like going to a bank. If you want to take something out, you have to put something in and I think it’s actually essential.

The way I put it to them when I went out there to carry the message to the NATO countries, again I knew many of these people from my prior time there before I went and retired and went to Stanford University for three years to teach and all, the way I put it to them was, you cannot expect American parents to care more about your children’s future than you care.

That was well received, there was no push back or saying that’s not fair. There was none of that. I think President Bush, the second President Bush, i think President Obama, I think President Trump, are right. And by the way, the secretary general of NATO also agrees that the nations all need to do that. He’s a former prime minister of Norway, he’s not an American. Secretary general of NATO is never an American and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg completely agrees with that. They’re going to have to pay more. And they’re doing it. They’re raising the money, it’s coming in more, democracies are always slower than dictatorships because you have to get consensus first, but they’re coming.

I’ve got to get rolling Teddy. One last question before I’ve got to go back into a meeting?

TEDDY: Out of thousands of calls, why did you respond to this one?

MATTIS: You left a message there and I was going through listening to the messages and deleting them. But you’re from Washington state. I grew up in Washington state on the other side of the mountains there on the Columbia River. I just thought I’d give you a call.

I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes, not the same ones we made.

Whenever I can, I try to work with students who are doing research projects. I was at Stanford University for a little over three years after I got out of the Marines before I got surprised by this request I’d come back and be the secretary of defense. So, I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes, not the same ones we made.

TEDDY: Any advice for graduating seniors?

MATTIS: I would just tell you that there’s all sorts of people that are going to give you advice and you should listen to the people you respect, but I think if you guide yourself by putting others first, by trying to serve others, whether it be in your family, in your school, in your church or synagogue or mosque or wherever you get your spiritual strength from, you can help your state, you can help your country, if you can help the larger community in the world, you won’t be lying on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re 45-years-old wondering what you did with your life.

If you can help the larger community in the world, you won’t be lying on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re 45-years-old wondering what you did with your life.

Go out of your way. Not everyone has to join the military, it’s not for everyone. For one thing it’s scary as all get out at times, but whether it be the Peace Corp or the Marine Corps, whether it be serving on your local school board when you’re still not even 30-years-old, by running for office and trying to get a good education for the kids in your community, just try to put others first and it will pay back in so many ways that you’d be a lot happier in life. So just look for ways to help others all the way along, Teddy, and you’ll never go far wrong if you’re always looking to do that. You won’t get all caught up in your own problems if you’re out helping others overcome theirs.

And you keep asking these kind of questions Teddy. You’re asking good, very good questions and just try to keep an open mind. There’ll be a lot of people who want to tell you what to think in this world. If you read a lot of history you’ll thank them for their help but you won’t be governed by what someone else has told you to think.


Interview conducted by Teddy Fischer

Interview transcribed by Jane Gormley

Questions written by Teddy Fischer and Jane Gormley

Thumbnail photo courtesy Jim Mattis Flickr