The Mercer Island High School’s magazine The Islander recently conducted an interview with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Mattis is a retired four-star general. He was a NATO official and a commander of the joint forces command and has participated in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When asked why out of the thousand calls, he responded to theirs, Mattis, who was a teacher at Stanford University for 3 years, said: “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.”
During the interview, Mattis who owns a library that contains over a 1,000 books and who has a degree in history focused on the importance of studying history, said: “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.”
“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,” he added.
When asked about the war on terrorism in the Middle East in particular where ISIS is suffering military losses by recruiting foreign fighters, Mattis said the key to establish an atmosphere of stability in the Middle East is through education. “I think ideologies can be countered by showing people a better education and hope for the future,” he said.
The Saudi example
Mattis gave Saudi Arabia as an example and cited late Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s scholarships program which was launched in 2005 to enable academically qualified Saudi students to study abroad in esteemed in order to contribute to their country’s economic and social development.
Mattis added that Middle Eastern countries must become more productive on the economic level to guarantee that they can confront the challenges confronting society and improve education. He then talked about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and commended his efforts to shift the kingdom’s economy from a consumer economy into a productive economy and described this as “a revolutionary effort.”
Mattis then focused on youths’ energy and said youths must be part of a positive environment in order to be safe and protected and avoid being recruited by extremist groups.
He then went back to discussing history which he said it “will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask.” Mattis voiced his rejection of ideological people and said: “It’s like those people just want to stop thinking” as they reject those who are not like them. He asked why they bother and make so much effort to show that “the other” is evil or crazy. “None of us are perfect and all-knowing,” he said.
When asked about war, Mattis voiced his admiration of Greek historian and leader Thucydides who wrote the first book about history 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. He said: “The fundamental nature of war, you go all the way back to Thucydides” who said that the motive for war is fear, honor and interests and they all still exit to this day”.
“What he wrote over 2,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago still consumes people. That’s what I meant about studying history,” Mattis said. He added that although technology has become part of war, the latter is “still full of fear and courage, cowardice and duplicity, treachery, and clarity, honesty and confusion.”
When President Donald Trump picked him as Secretary of Defense, he said before the Congress that the military institution must be lethal. In the interview with The Islander, he explained: “The way that you get your diplomats listened to in an imperfect world is you make certain you back them up with hard power. 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. I think that’s where diplomats lead and the military then reinforces the diplomats.”
Mattis has revealed another side of himself that demonstrates his steadiness and leniency. He draws the present and knows that the basic partner for a good future is the young generations provided they are educated about historyHuda al-Husseini
On what will happen after ISIS is defeated, Mattis explained how Tillerson held a conference in Washington 7 weeks ago. As many as 65 countries and military, financial and humanitarian organizations participated in it and Mattis spoke during it.
Mattis told The Islander: “You don’t have to have the Americans do it all. There are many nations that said, if you will lead, we will contribute. 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 meeting not talking about the military aspects. 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.” Mattis acknowledged America’s “defeat” of wars after military victories. He noted that: “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.”
Mattis explained that in Desert Storm, the US achieved victories on all levels. He said that 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.’ We went in with more troops than we needed and we ended it quickly, because he had the political end state right. 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.”
Trust with Arabs
Asked how the US can create an atmosphere of trust with the Arab people, especially in Iran, he said: “That’ll be a little tough, since it’s not really an election. It is the Supreme Leader who 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.”
He added: “They tried to murder an Arab ambassador in downtown Washington D.C. for example. Right now, they have moved ballistic missiles down to Yemen that were shot into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. It is going to be very hard to deal with them. 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. Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”
Mattis then discussed Syria and said Bashar al-Assad’s regime has stayed in power thanks to Iran and Russia. “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 US military and the Russian military, we maintain very open communications with each other. We’re not engaged in the fight to get rid of Assad, we’re just there fighting ISIS. The Russians are trying to figure out how to get out of it now.”
The interview with The Islander is lengthy. It narrated history and lessons learnt and explained how motives for war have been the same and have not changed although the weapons used may have differed. In the interview, Mattis has revealed another side of himself that demonstrates his steadiness and leniency. He draws the present and knows that the basic partner for a good future is the young generations provided they are educated about history. What Mattis said in detail must be circulated.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.