Distinguished Voices Series with Jim Mattis

Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Jim Mattis

Coauthor, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead; Former U.S. Secretary of Defense; General (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps


President, Council on Foreign Relations; @RichardHaass

General Mattis discusses his lessons learned in leadership over the course of his military and government career.


MATTIS: I’m sure that’s for you, Richard. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Well, good morning and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back to the Council on Foreign Relations. I hope everyone had a good summer. I’m Richard Haass. Still president. (Laughter.) But before we turn to this morning’s meeting with—do you prefer Secretary Mattis or General Mattis?

MATTIS: Jim does just fine. (Laughter, applause.) I left my titles behind, Richard, in Washington, D.C., and happily so. (Laughter.)

HAASS: It’ll be difficult. (Laughter.) But before we turn to the meeting I did want to say a few things about Leslie Gelb. Les, as I expect all of you now know, passed away over the long weekend. He was eighty-two. Most recently he was president emeritus here, but over the past four or five decades he was a distinguished academic, a senior government official at both State and Defense, an opinion writer and a journalist with the New York Times, and, of course, president here at the Council on Foreign Relations for a decade, from 1993 to 2003.

His time here as president was distinguished for many reasons, but among them the founding of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Geoeconomics, the expansion of the National Program and its membership, the launch of the independent taskforce program, the invigoration of what is now the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program, and much, much more. Les was generous with his time and wisdom with a great many young people in the field. I should know, because once I was one of them. We’ll find ways in the months ahead to commemorate and celebrate Les’ life and his many contributions here, but I didn’t want to let this moment pass without acknowledging them.

As I said, and as you can see, we’re here this morning to hear from Jim Mattis. (Laughter.)

MATTIS: Thank you.

HAASS: Most recently the secretary of defense of these United States of America. But before that, he commanded troops in the Persian Gulf, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, and he headed up Central Command. He is a distinguished voice in this series here at the Council devoted to distinguished voices. He’s also the author of a few book, published just today, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. He co-authored it with Francis J. West, also known as Bing West, a fellow Marine. Full disclosure, I worked closely with Bing in the Pentagon in 1979 and 1980, and I have been a friend of the gentleman sitting to my right here for some decades.

I also want to note, and this is not easy for me to say, that this book is already a bestseller on Amazon. (Laughter.) No doubt in anticipation of this event here today. Now, so I went on Amazon. And you can buy the hard cover there, at least as of this morning, you can buy it for $18.77. But for only slightly more, $31.97, you can get the hardcover along with two volumes of Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. (Laughter.) And let me just say, that’s a slightly more impressive pairing than most of us are familiar with. (Laughter.)

Secretary Mattis, welcome. And first and foremost, thank you for your half-century of service to this country. (Applause.)

MATTIS: Thank you.

HAASS: The way we are going to do it in this on-the-record meeting—so you’ve now been read your Miranda rights. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Jim and I are going to talk for about twenty-five minutes, and then we will open it up to you, our members, for the tough questions. I read the book and enjoyed it, and learned from it, and recommend it to you all. But let’s cut to the chase and we’ll work backwards from there.


HAASS: This is a careful book. You include your resignation letter to President Donald Trump, and I’m going to quote from it. It’s on page 246, I believe, of the book. Here it is. “I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It’s clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model, gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions, to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America, and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense. My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conductive to our security, prosperity, and values. And we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. And 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 from my position.”

This letter was dated December 30 of 2018. So let me ask one question, which is why did you single out alliances and allies as something so central both to your view of foreign policy and to your reason for resigning, and draw the distinction between your views and the president’s on this?

MATTIS: Richard, first, it is a privilege to be here. I don’t take this lightly that you all took time to be here today. So thank you for having me here.

On the allies, I was brought up by the Greatest Generation. And if I were to sum up my generation in a word, I would call it the luckiest generation. We were given a world where we could grow up in freedom, fiscal responsibility, civil rights. Everything seemed to be maturing at a time that we were coming of age, and that was—that gift was just granted to us. But in talking to members of the Greatest Generation, they had grown up in the Depression. They had gone through a world war that had killed tens of millions of people. When Churchill was asked midway in the war, what would you name this war, since one was called the Great War—World War I, we call it today. He said, I’d call it the unnecessary war.

And coming out of that war, World War II, the Greatest Generation used the Marshall Plan to reach out to our former enemies—vicious enemies, the Nazis, the Japanese—to put them back on their feet. They created the United Nations, an imperfect organization, to discuss issues, to have a place to meet and talk our way through them. They put together NATO, what the Australian ambassador to the United States once characterized to me as the single most self-sacrificial pledge in world history. He threw it out, that guy, and I said, Marshall Plan? He said, no. No, he said, NATO. You pledged one hundred million dead Americans to protect democracy in Western Europe. You could have said that’s twice in twenty-five years you’ve gotten us—dragged us into a war. We’re shifting to Asia, to Latin America, to the Middle East. We’re done with you. Instead, you put together NATO.

And what—the way George Shultz puts it is when that generation came home from the war they said, what a crummy world. But we’re a part of it, whether we like it or not. Globalization, as he puts it, is not a policy. It’s a reality. So we’re going to have to deal with the reality. And I have been on many battlefields. I had the privilege to fight many, many times for this country. Not once did I fight in an all-American formation. When this town was attacked on 9/11, I went into Afghanistan less than sixty days later—seventy days later. And alongside us were Canadian troops, and German troops, Norwegian, and United Kingdom, Turkey, and Jordan, Australia, and New Zealand. Their town wasn’t attacked. They were there because we were attacked.

And when you look at this saying we have in the Marine Corps, it’s something along the lines of when you’re going into a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns. I’ve never been on a crowded battlefield. We need every one of those allies if we’re going to protect these values. So that’s the formative experience the American taxpayers paid my tuition to learn over a long time.

HAASS: It turned out to be a good investment. But in this book, and as you suggest in your resignation letter, you hold off criticizing the president, this president, the forty-fifth president, Donald Trump. And you explain that you owe it—I think you used the French phrase devoir de réserve. Why don’t you explain your—because it’ll come up and I just want to put it on the table, your sense—your position about why you’ve published a book, but yet still want to hold back.

MATTIS: Well, first of all, I signed the contract to write the book in 2013. We were on version five in 2017 and, we thought, ready to roll it out, when I had to put it on hold. And Random House was kind enough not to sue me for breach of contract. (Laughter.) And I thought that when I came out of the office then I would put the book out. It was about what I learned in the Marine Corps. It was never about an unanticipated job as secretary of defense. I never aspired to the job. I took no part in the campaign. I don’t believe generals should do that sort of thing. And so I bring the book out today. And it’s about what I learned in the Marine Corps. I had to acknowledge that, yes, I did learn the lessons I’d learned in the Marine Corps in order to say, yes, I’m prepared to do the job when asked. But it was still just a duty to do as secretary of defense. When asked to support the country’s governance, whether it’s Republicans or Democrat, they ask you to do it. You don’t sit up there wringing your hands wondering what to do. Just roll up your sleeves, if you’re ready, go to work.

I don’t believe that if you leave an administration over a matter of policy—and I made that clear in the letter—that you then get out and start talking in what we commonly call a kiss and tell now. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. We’ve got a president and a secretary of state and a secretary of defense trying to protect this great big experiment that you and I call America. And I’m not going to make their job more difficult by a former secretary of defense speaking out from what I would call the cheap seats, not responsible for anything, up there talking about it. But this is also consistent, for those of you who say I have a responsibility to speak out, I’ve led a responsible life. I know what responsibility is. But from George Washington to George Marshall to Secretary Ash Carter, the secretary of defense under Secretary Obama—or, President Obama—he said he would not speak out on political issues. It’s not the right place for the defense establishment to be dictating or somehow influencing, I think, the political associations, the political qualifications of people. That’s for the American people. I’ve got a lot of trust in the American people. I don’t—I don’t lose sleep over the American people.

HAASS: Let me just push it one more way and then I’ll move on. (Laughter.) The—no, I think it’s important.

MATTIS: I’ve frustrated everyone so far on this. (Laughter.)

HAASS: I think it’s important. There’s those of us who believe that this—the election fourteen months from today has the potential—I’d actually argue, the likelihood—to be a truly consequential election, arguably the most in our lifetime. We’re only a year apart in age. What would it take—what exhausts this reserve on your part? Is it a sense of events? You just said your former colleagues are facing all sorts of tasks. What if you sense they really are going off the rails? So is it a matter of time? Is it a matter of potential consequence of decision? What would get you, Jim Mattis, to basically say: I know I made this pledge, but—is it an amount of time, or is it—is it an issue of consequence, where you think they’re getting it wrong?

MATTIS: Yeah. Well, there will come a time when I speak out on strategic issues, policy issues. That I do not have a question about. But I need to give some period of time to those who have to carry out the responsibility to protect this country in a very, very difficult age. I mean, we have to recognize that historians may not be writing about it yet, but we are living through historic times right now. And all we’re getting is the current events each day on the newspaper. We don’t see the reflective analysis that helps us to put this all together. And so when the time comes, I’ll know it, when it’s right. I can’t tell you. I can’t tell myself. I’m not keeping a secret. When the time’s right to speak out about policy or strategy, I’ll speak out.

But as General Bradley put it, and as Dr. Carter, the former secretary of defense reinforced even about civilians—Bradley put it this way after World War II: When a general retires his uniform, he should retire his tongue about political assessments, OK? Leave that to the American people, if you trust them. And I do. I’ve got a love affair with the Constitution. And I believe in this country. Every one of you has so far today thanked me for my service, walked into the building, believe me you were worth it. I don’t feel like it wasn’t worth it, OK? We’re all together in this thing.

HAASS: I want to touch on two—

MATTIS: He’s frustrated now. (Laughter.)

HAASS: I want to touch on two previous presidents, because there you had more to say. Let’s begin with forty-three, George W. Bush. I worked in that administration, full disclosure, State Department. And the 2003 Iraq War. If I mischaracterize you, I apologize. But basically you were quite critical of the lack of planning for the aftermath. You actually talk—you reveal certain exchanges you had with some of your colleagues and, I think, superiors at the time. And it wasn’t something that was noticed only in hindsight, but at the time you were remarkable upon the lack of guidance you had received there. And then you go on to note your disagreement with multiple decisions—the decision to disband the Iraqi Army, the decision to ban members of the Ba’ath Party from positions in new Iraq, the push for immediate elections. You disagreed with how we responded to the order to have a military response when the military contractors were killed, and their bodies were desecrated in public.

And you actually wrote something that, again, I wanted to read, because this—I thought it was an extraordinary statement about your thinking at the time about why we should act with restraint. And I’ll quote here, “Great nations don’t get angry. Military actions should be undertaken only to achieve specific strategic effects. In this case, we were in an extremely violent political campaign over ideas, and we were trying to treat the problem of Fallujah like a conventional war. I believe we had more effective—I believed we had a more effective, sustainable approach for the situation we faced, but that was the order: attack.” So time and time again you were at odds with the guidance. So I really have two questions. One is, could you have done anything more? What was your place as a military man, different than being secretary of defense? Then you were still on active duty. And would it have made a difference?

MATTIS: Well, that—it’s a key question, because I think when you get thrust into a situation like that you always look back if it doesn’t turn out what you think is a favorable way to say: Is there more I could have done? Could I have conveyed more clearly, more persuasively up the chain of command why in a tribal town we could allies to help us get the bodies back, find who did it, hunt them down, and kill them without assaulting the town. We were under a troop cap as well and I didn’t have enough troops really to do that. We were—in some areas, we were outnumbered. And it was a tough time. I had twenty-nine sailors or Marines around me, a two-star general at the time, and it was such tough fighting that in four months seventeen of those twenty-nine lads would be killed or wounded. And I’m a general. I’m not in the tough spot. I’m in—I’m much safer than the average infantryman on the street.

So I had an idea of how to do it. But there’s the larger issue here. Are policy people sufficiently prepared to put in the rigor? Do they have the historical background, the cultural understanding? Do they understand the fundamental unpredictability of war so that when you make a decision like this you’re prepared to go the—go the distance? Deep inside the city, after I suggested strongly that we not assault it—I said, OK, but don’t stop me. Deep inside the city I get stopped with my guys in house-to-house fighting. Once—well, let me back up. You’ll find few people more reluctant to go to war than seasoned soldiers. Just a reality. Once you’re exposed in near-body experiences to war, then you’re just—you’re reluctant to do it except when you actually have to. But once in that fight, then you must commit to ending it as quickly as possible on the most favorable terms.

We failed to do so, and the enemy achieved a moral victory. And the terrorist recruiting and fundraising just mushroomed at that point. And now it was Katy bar the door. It would cost us, after I was ordered out of the city, some months after I left over six hundred killed, wounded in that fighting to take the city and the area around it. And that’s a cost. Are our strategic policymakers putting the same level of effort into understanding the problem and the end state as the squad leader who’s twenty-three years old briefing his nineteen-year-olds getting ready to go out on patrol. We expect him to do his job right, and they’re held accountable to it. Are we really doing right?

And this isn’t just a problem for America. It’s not a problem with the current administration or that administration. I think this is a problem in the Western democracies, where we’re not teaching history, where we have self-confidence concerns about whether or not our values are worth defending, where we are making, I would call it, almost strategy-free decisions. And it worries me. You know, it worries the heck out of me. But at the same time, it is not meant as a political statement about that one administration, because I saw this repeated in other administrations.

HAASS: Well, let me generalize the point. You had a great phrase in the book, and I quote, “the treacherous curtain of deference.” So how is it, you’ve been in all sorts of situations. And everyone always says speak truth of power, easy to say. But every once in a while power doesn’t want to hear the truth as you see it. And how do you avoid getting sent to Siberia or getting fired? What is your—you know, you’ve been in all sorts of situations. You’ve been both in the formal command of the military and outside it. How do you—again, you warn against the treacherous curtain of deference, but how do you avoid the fate of those who tell people what they may need to hear but don’t want to hear, and pay an enormous price for it? Or should you just be prepared to pay the price?

MATTIS: Right. And of course, the quote is from George Kennan. The—I think the point is to do your own homework. Make certain that if you get tapped on the shoulder for something you don’t have kind of one of those gut-wrenching moments that you know, boy, I wish I’d studied X, Y, or Z, or something like that. Now, the Marine Corps helps you though that midlife crisis by requiring you to read. At each rank they give you a new list of books you got to read. Even generals, when they make general, are given a new list. You never get done with this thing, you know? (Laughter.) And they’re not very interested in you saying, well, I was busy, I didn’t get to it, you know? They’re not really kind to you about it. So you do your preparation and make certain that you know what you’re talking about and have a little humility.

Remember the guy who disagrees with you, or the gal who disagrees with you, they’re right once in a while, you know? But you’ve got to be able to push forward with a pretty persuasive force of personality because when you’re making real policy it’s not like in the civics book. There’s passions. There’s hard arguments. There’s political alliances that you have to at least acknowledge. And you just—you just keep fighting the good fight. But then eventually when they decision’s made, there’s got to be a larger frame of confidence. And mine is about the Constitution. I’ve got a love affair with the thing. And I really believe that three co-equal branches of government eventually will get it right. That’s all there is to it.

So when they give you an order, attack into Fallujah, they’re not called likes, they’re called orders, you know what I mean? You don’t have to like them, OK? You got to do it, unless it’s immoral or unethical. And it was not something immoral or unethical. I just thought I had a smarter way to solve the problem. So at that point you go in, roll up your sleeves, and carry out the order as well or better than if it had been your own thought. That’s the way our military is. We have civilian control of the military and that’s got to matter even when you disagree. It’s that simple.

HAASS: I want to give you a chance to show you’re genuinely bipartisan, as you are. When you wrote about President Obama you were critical of his decision to back Maliki after the 2012 election, of his decision to take U.S. troops out of Iraq. Indeed, you, quote—I’ll quote you, “Supporting a sectarian Iraqi prime minister and withdrawing all U.S. troops were catastrophic decisions,” close quote. You were critical of the decision to tie the buildup—the temporary buildup in Afghanistan to the decision to leave eighteen months later. You were critical of how they handled Mr. Mubarak during the Arab Spring, of not responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, of the Iran nuclear deal, and so forth.

So you were clearly critical of quite a lot there. One thing that I wanted to do was to connect not just to talk about the past, but to two areas of the present. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, that’s still very much an active policy thing. Explain your views on that, about why you were so critical of it.

MATTIS: Well, the reason I was critical on the JCPOA—this is the Iran prevents a nuclear weapons program; and it was a nuclear weapons program it was not a nuclear program—was it had in at least two cases sundown provisions that I thought were too soon, and that we had given up too much there. A second reason was I did not think the inspection regime—and if you read the 156 pages of it, it’s written as if we expected them to cheat. I mean, it’s well-written in that regard. But then the inspection regime fell short of that very thesis in terms of addressing.

But there was the larger issue that they’d used denial and deceit for years to try to hide the program. And here was a country that had tried to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Georgetown at a restaurant. And we caught them red-handed. And we were unwilling to do anything more than put the low-level courier in jail, when we knew it had been approved at the highest levels in Tehran. Not by the Iranian people—or not with the Iranian people, the regime. And so my view as that if the JCPOA was signed as it was there would be problems. And so I did not think it was a sound idea. But you know, we signed it, and so we had to deal with it.

HAASS: As I said, you were quite critical about the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan eighteen months after the temporary buildup. Obviously now we’re meeting in a context where U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is on the table again. And you write approvingly of the long-term presence of the United States in the Republic of Korea. Essentially the argument it took is we shouldn’t be against long-term troop commitments if the benefits of the commitment outweigh the costs. So do you have about the possibility now that we may be getting out of Afghanistan in sixteen months?

MATTIS: Yeah. See how he came back around there? (Laughter.) I’m not going to comment—

HAASS: I thought it was quite deft. (Laughter.)

MATTIS: I won’t comment on the current situation there because I’m not fully aware of the negotiations and I want to defer to those who are trying to carry this out—the State Department and our diplomats there. And it would be—it wouldn’t be right.


MATTIS: But, however, let me just point out that when we were leaving Iraq against the military’s advice and against the intelligence community’s advice, the intelligence community still remembered the young CIA analyst sent down to me and several others, and she said basically, if you pull your troops out you’ll most likely have to go back in because I guarantee you that an al-Qaida-associated group, I’m not quite sure which leadership cadre will form it, will be bringing them back out stronger than ever. You think of the millions displaced, the refugees all stemming from ISIS and what happened—the intelligence community did not miss that. I mean, I was a—I was a four-star general. I wasn’t in Washington, D.C. I was commanding CENTCOM.

And so sure enough, we have to send the troops back in. But look at what the cost was in Germany, in Turkey, all across the Middle East, the disruption. So if that happens there, should we not learn from that situation? We can want a war over. We can declare the war over. But the enemy gets a vote. And terrorism is going to be an ambient threat.

In 1984 George Schultz—I think he might have been here, but he was here in this town, and he warned that terrorism was going to cost us innocent people’s lives and military lives. Seventeen years before 9/11, he forecasted exactly what was going to happen.

The idea that we can now turn out back on this threat and somehow we’re going to live in an island in the global community unaffected by it just doesn’t match. We’re going to have to learn from our past, and we’re going to have to see where alliances can help take some of the burden off us and protect others like it protects us. And it’s not easy. Churchill put it well when he said the only thing harder than fighting with allies is what? Fighting without them. But I will tell you it’s worth it. For every vote in the U.N. they bring, for every soldier they put on the battlefield, for every diplomat they put into the negotiating teams, it’s worth it.

HAASS: Let me just raise two other questions, then I’ll turn it over to our members.

You say something about Pakistan. And again, I think I’m quoting here: “Of all the countries I have dealt with, I consider Pakistan to be the most dangerous.” Why is that?

MATTIS: The radicalization of their society. By the way, that is also the view of members of the Pakistan military. They realize what they’ve got going on there. They recognize it. It’s a very twisted relationship between Pakistan and us. But when you take the radicalization of the society and you add to it the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal I think in the world, you see why one of the points I would make that we need to focus on right now is arms control and nonproliferation efforts. This is a much worse problem, I think, than anyone’s writing about today.

HAASS: What would be number two and three on that list if Pakistan’s number one?

MATTIS: Yeah. We rewrote, when I got to the Pentagon, the National Defense Strategy. When I walked in it was Friday night. You know, you get sworn in by the vice president, in my case, and there’s a big party. You get to go dance and everything. It’s wonderful, you know. You know, you rent a tuxedo and it’s really great. But the next day, knowing that some people might be struggling a little, I said at noon we start on Saturday.

So I’m in my office there, an office I’d first walked into twenty years before as the executive secretary to the secretary of defense. I learned quickly, boy, that’s one job I’d never want. (Laughter.) And I said to the chairman and the—and Deputy Secretary Work, the continuity of government officer held over from the Obama administration, and the vice chairman, said, you know, I asked for thirty days to get the strategy because I had to go up for the Senate confirmation hearing, and fortunately they didn’t ask me about it, but I need it. I need to know. I said I’ve got a couple of next-of-kin letters coming that I’m going to have to sign here. I need to look at the strategy.

And the chairman looked me right in the eye and said we don’t have one. He said we haven’t—last strategy’s eight years old. And ever been in one of those situations where your heart just sinks for a minute? And you think about it, think of all that had changed over—actually, I think it might have been even older than that, but it’s at least eight years old. There had been Quadrennial Defense Reviews, which were exactly what they sound like—reviews—but we weren’t addressing China and Russia’s adversarial stance with us. We were not addressing a number of issues. And we were stuck with just this constant rotation of forces against the terrorism. And so took a yellow pad of paper home that night and started writing out the strategy.

You have to always have historically-informed people on your staff who have a degree of strategic insight, because if you don’t this world is just too fast-changing to sit there and say, well, what worked eight years ago is just fine; we’ll just keep—you know, we’ll just keep asking for more money, and we’ll send the money into the same things we’re doing now, we don’t have to change. That’s very, very dangerous if we’re going to defend this experiment we call America.

HAASS: Last question for me at this point. During your hearing prep—

MATTIS: I thought that last one was your last.

HAASS: That was my next-to-last. (Laughter.)


HAASS: And I didn’t ask you to show your dance moves, so you have to be nice to me. (Laughter.)

Quote, you were struck—just in your hearing preps, and you said you were struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage.

MATTIS: Mmm hmm.

HAASS: When you stepped down as SecDef, had that changed, or did you leave with those same concerns?

MATTIS: We’d identified with a strategy the priorities we had. All strategy is is setting priorities, ultimately. What are the—what are the priorities that we are going to spend money on? So we looked at things like 5G within the department, hypersonic weapons, the militarization of space. We’ve got a Space Command. I left with a lot fewer concerns about—I left with almost no concerns about the trajectory we were on. And the strategy itself, when I rolled it out I had already been to a large number of senators and congressmen/congresswomen, plus all of our allies in Europe. So we achieved pretty much very strong bipartisan support for record-breaking budgets that the president brought over to Congress. The defense budgets, we’re now funding these very technological deficiencies we had in accordance with a strategy that all of them knew what it said. Where they didn’t agree with it they told me, and we took their ideas back and we wrote them in, or we went back up to see them and explain why not. So the spirit of collaboration was sufficiently strong to turn into dollar signs to address the survival of this country, and we can afford survival as a nation. That’s not a problem as long as we have a strategy where we can build the trust of the American people we’re not just wasting the money.

HAASS: OK. Let me turn it over to members. Again, one question, short. Stand up, state your name, your association. And remember, it’s on the record.

Yes, ma’am.

Q: Thank you so much. My name is Rebecca Brubaker and I come from that imperfect organization, the United Nations.

I wonder what advice you might have for a new administration, for the next administration, on how best to repair alliances that may have suffered over the last few years.

MATTIS: Yeah. Ms. Brubaker’s question was how do we best repair alliances. You know, I compare alliances very much to a garden. You’ve always got to be out there weeding the garden. You’ve got to be fertilizing it. You got to make certain it’s watered. You have to give attention to it.

But I would follow—and I—and I hit it in the book—we all need a framework for how we do problem-solving or how we do leading if you’re put into a leadership position. And I think the specific advice I would give inside the United Nations, Ms. Brubaker, is to listen, learn, help, and then lead. And I have no original ideas in my lead; that’s straight from George Washington, who led a revolutionary army and created a country, beating the redcoats who would humble Napoleon a few years later—with a lot of help from the French, I might add. But listen. And you don’t listen just listen to rebut them. You listen, then you learn where are they really at, what are their issues. You help them on theirs, and then you lead your alliance because at this point in time America remains a leading nation unless we abrogate that responsibility.

So that’s the approach I would take on all the issues with all nations that have shared values. And it doesn’t have to be completely shared. I’m sure FDR didn’t share all the values of Stalin when he made an alliance with him. I’m quite confident on that. But there are ways to carve out, create, find common ground with a lot more people in the world, I think. And we see this across the Western democracies today, where it’s not just America but a lot of nations are no longer looking for common ground, and we’ve got to repair that.

Does that answer your question, Ms. Brubaker? Yeah. Thank you.

HAASS: Sure. We’ll get a microphone to you.

Q: Thank you so much. Jamie Metzl with the Atlantic Council. Thank you very much for everything you’ve done for this country and for being here.

MATTIS: Well, you’re with it. No problem.

Q: Well, thank you. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Don’t let it go to your head, Jamie.

Q: My mother says just the same thing. (Laughter.)

My question is, if you believed that the Trump administration and the Trump presidency posed a fundamental threat to the postwar international that George Marshall and Dean Acheson and others built, and to foundational American values, would you feel compelled to speak up clearly and strongly? And how would your views on duty and leadership flow into your decision-making on that issue?

MATTIS: I’ve never thought that I was the fount of all wisdom. I’m just going to be right upfront with you. What we all need to do is recognize elections are rough and tumble. They’re not always civil. I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m right, you’re wrong. OK, welcome to democracy. It’s a little raucous at times. But when we are done with an election, then we all need to—at least the majority of us need to just roll up our sleeves and get to work governing.

Elections are about dividing in order to get elected. I understand that. But governing’s about uniting. And right now we seem to stay in a constant election mode, and I see us as let’s just get together and figure out how to solve the problems together. And then, when there’s another election, we’ll go at it again tooth and nail. And when I’m done arguing with somebody next to me, then I’m going to go out for a Coke or a root beer or some other stronger drink, and find out how their family’s doing, and get to know which of their daughters is going to school, college, and which of their sons has got a medical issue or something. We’re so—we have become so much politicized that I have read recently that one American in six has stopped talking to a family member or close friend.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, if we don’t have a fundamental friendliness and a fundamental respect with each other, then you very quickly go into an adversarial role. I’m not willing to lose confidence in the country. Every two years we can switch out every member of the House, every four years the president, every six years every senator can be gone. We have the ability to change course if people think we’re going the wrong way, and I believe we can do it just by following the Constitution, but maintaining respect for each other that maybe once in a while we’re not the only person with the right idea.

HAASS: Yes, ma’am.

Q: Hi. Allison Silver—

HAASS: Can you put the microphone closer so we can hear?

Q: Sure. Allison Silver, 4Context.

You talked about the books you had to read as a general, and I was wondering if you could tell us some of them and specifically how it informed some decisions you had to make in your role.

MATTIS: Sure. Yes, ma’am. I was taught—because I was an infantry officer, you’re really—you’re in the hands of your sergeants. That’s the bottom line. Or corporals. They are the ones who are going to make you or break you as a young officer, and they’re going to form you.

My first platoon sergeant—I’m going to start with second lieutenant because your formative years then influence how you are as a general. As a second lieutenant in the infantry with forty sailors and Marines in my infantry platoon, my first platoon sergeant was Corporal Wayne Johnson (sp), a British East Indies—or West Indies immigrant to the United States. Of course, with a name like that everyone called him John Wayne, even though he’s only 5’5”—five-and-a-half inches—five-and-a-half feet tall. But he taught me very early on what does an officer do and what do the NCOs do, and just leave out a lot of things. Leave a lot of flexibility to your subordinate. Trust them. He was followed by Corporal Manuel Rivera (sp), an immigrant from Mexico who was my next platoon sergeant. We had very junior people in those ranks in those days. And my next platoon sergeant after that, finally a staff sergeant, Remy LeBrun (ph)—yep, from Quebec, Canada. My first three platoon sergeants, immigrants. Very common because immigrant families serve at a higher rate than native-born.

What they taught me, really, was trust—that trust is the coin of the realm between a leader and the led, and among the people that you’re trying to create a common ownership of the mission. Because once you get that level of ownership, whether it be you’ve got corporals or you’ve got admirals and generals under you, then you can take your hands off the steering wheel once you’ve told them what you need done, and trust to their initiative and aggressiveness to carry it out. And I always assumed and was rewarded by thinking that my young troops, my juniors, had the same level of commitment. They were coequal in their commitment to the mission.

And so really what happens is you get to a point where you’re comfortable allowing others to do the steering; you just give them the navigation directions and then they do it. Now, they’ll make mistakes once in a while and you got to stand by them. But believe me, I made a lot of mistakes, so it’s not going to stop mistakes by moving all the decisions up higher. What it’s going to do is allow others to take advantage—the adversary to take advantage. And this is true in the business world, I think, where opportunities open and close quickly. The more you can delegate to the lowest capable level, that’s really the message that I was taught by my young NCOs and one that I practiced when I reached four-star and I had two- and three-star subordinates with a quarter-million troops under my command. Same lessons that I used when I had forty.

HAASS: Jeh Johnson?

Q: Good afternoon. Jeh Johnson, law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

Jim, I haven’t had a chance to read your book yet. It may be in there. You may have just answered my question. But I’m wondering, who is the finest leader you’ve had occasion to work with, either civilian or military, in your—in your experience? You may have just answered the question, but—

MATTIS: Yeah. I trust it to be one of the most admired and respected leaders I ever served with. Jeh, it’s an honor to see you again, and thank you. We nailed a lot of people thanks to you, and nothing like having a good lawyer on your side. You know what I mean? (Laughter.) He would sit there and think very soberly as we laid out the agenda for a certain individual who was trying to kill one of our ambassadors, and he would listen and he would talk very soberly, and I’d say, yes, I think there’s every reason to do what you’re suggesting. And that carried the day in the intergovernmental councils. Jay, I’m grateful. We couldn’t have done it without you back in those days.

But admired leaders, there have been so many. You know, ladies and gentlemen, when you look at these young men and women who volunteer, look past all the hot political rhetoric and they sign this blank check to you, the American people, to the Constitution, saying they’ll put their lives on the line—they don’t know you. In many cases they’ve only read the Constitution once, when we forced them to read it. But they have this innate patriotism, and eventually it’s going to come down to some twenty-year-old corporal pointing to a young PFC and pointing that way, and he’s going to bite his lip and he’s going to get up and start running toward an enemy that’s going to try to kill him. And I think when you see that, it’s that raw example, that unadorned example of what happens to those who actually go into he close-quarters fighting most that rides with you. It also humbles you to the point that—I always thought I’d put more pressure on myself to know my trade, to able to call for artillery fire, to call for a medevac helicopter than even the rough-hewn Marine Corps put on me just because I knew those guys were counting on me, those young guys were counting on me.

So I would say it’s more the example of just absolutely selfless service, plus just the rambunctious nature. Primary reason I stuck around that low-paying outfit for forty years was the absolute joy of serving alongside all of them, you know, Jeh. But I’ll think about it more, and if I can think of one that stood out from all the rest I’ll let you know. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Sure. Yes, ma’am. Do we have a microphone? Right there.

Q: Hi. Maryum Saifee. Thank you for your service. I am with the State Department and I’m currently doing the CFR International Affairs Fellowship.

My question isn’t sort of the why you resigned, because you—you know, the policy issue, but the mechanics of how you made that decision, and any advice that you’d give to—you know, we’ve seen in the Foreign Service this wave of public resignations, even mid-career folks. What are the—what advice would you give? And the decision-making process.

MATTIS: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. But first, thank you for what you do. If anyone can keep us out of wars or fight no more than we absolutely have to, it’s all of you Foreign Service officers, State Department people, and we always wanted you negotiating from a position of strength. That was our job.

When I first got to Washington, D.C., for a confirmation hearing, I got into town on the twenty-eighth of December, right after Christmas, and I heard this guy named Rex Tillerson was staying at a hotel nearby. So I called him up and I said, hey, Rex, I’m Jim Mattis. Never met you, but why don’t we get dinner? And we had dinner together, and I—we got—just getting—two old guys in the back of the restaurant, you know, getting to know each other, you know. He’s a, you know, Boy Scout, you know, engineer, ExxonMobil, just great guy. And we’re talking, and we’re just talking about how it’s going to go over a couple hours, three hours. And I said, you know, some of my career, there’s been times when the secretary of state, secretary of defense wouldn’t walk across the Potomac River, shake hands, and it’s cost the country. I said, I’ll give you the military factors, but I think we’ve militarized our foreign policy over the last twenty years. This was not about any one administration. It seems to all—be all about economic sanctions or regime change. And I said, I’ll give you the military factors, but I want the diplomats in charge of foreign policy. And I’m pretty forceful, and I don’t mind giving the military factors. And he just reached over the table with that big hand of his and we shook hands on it. Every week when we were in town, which wasn’t often, we’d have breakfast at his place. I lived across the street. We had breakfast at the State Department. And we never had the White House have to sort it out between State and Defense; we sorted it out ourselves. We walked in with a State and Defense position, and it was a very well-worked-out thing.

So thank you for being someone young going in and doing this. You know, keep the faith.

But as far as what makes you decide to resign, how do you go through it, all I can tell you is I came in with the idea I would do four years. There just came a point when I realized that it was probably better that the president have someone who was more aligned from my department, and that perspective was accepted as more a matter of at least a point of departure for a discussion. And at that point I thought it was best that I—that I leave. But it’s an intensely personal decision because I was brought up by people that said you don’t get—you don’t quit on anything, you know. But you know, just came a point where I thought it was best.

But thanks for the question and your service, young lady.

HAASS: Michael Levin?

Q: Hi, sir. Michael Levin.

Some would consider you our—consider you our preeminent soldier-statesman. How do you feel about expanding on that to soldier-statesman-politician? (Laughter.)

MATTIS: Yeah. Bad. Bad, Michael. (Laughter.) You know—

HAASS: (Laughs.) You can tweet that.

MATTIS: Ladies and gentlemen, I love my life west of the Rockies. I remember when I got the phone call to come back east to be interviewed for secretary of defense, and I knew I hadn’t been out long enough so the House and the Senate both would have to agree. And I love it out west of the Rockies. Keep the Rocky Mountains between me and Washington, D.C.

But I think it’s also good to have fresh young ideas out there. I’m more than willing to help young people. I love teaching. I wander around universities corrupting young minds these days. But I’ve never seen myself going into these kind of jobs. We all have a self-image of where we belong, where our strengths are, more importantly where our weaknesses are. So I think we’ve got a lot of young people. I see them all the time out there. And there’s someone out there that’ll be real good.

HAASS: Lucy Komisar?

Q: Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.

In your resignation letter—and then you indicated just a few moments ago—you’re talking about how China and Russia are using economic power to enforce their interests, but the U.S. does the same thing. Sometimes it boomerangs, as it seems to be with China. Should we be weaponizing economic power? Or should an organization like the WTO say you can’t do this, it’s a—it’s restraint of trade? How are we dealing—how should we be dealing with the weaponizing of economic power?

MATTIS: Well, there’s—Lucy, there’s a view from me that weaponizing anything short of military power is probably a good thing. In other words, if it’s a situation that’s got to be resolved—if we could have broken Hitler’s back economically, I’d have been all for that rather than having to go to military power, OK?

But that aside, I believe that the international conventions, the international community, the organizations that tie us together, we should engage more in them. I believe in engaging with the world more and intervening militarily, at least with large forces, less. I have less concerns about intervening militarily with advisors to help other nations take care of their own problems. I’m OK with that a lot more often than I am with large military forces. So I believe in engaging with the international organizations, whether they be economic or diplomatic, and trying to find ways to make things work.

I mean, I can’t talk about any specifics right now, obviously, because you didn’t ask about specifics, but I’m not an economist. I was the secretary of defense, I’m happy to say.

HAASS: Ray Kelly?

Q: Ray Kelly—

HAASS: Want to wait for a microphone?

Q: I’m sorry. (Comes on mic.) Ray Kelly.

There’s a debate in the Marine Corps now about integrating women into rifle platoons and, obviously, move to women in general into the military. I’d like to hear your opinion on specifically the rifle platoon issue.

MATTIS: Yeah. It’s good to see you again, Commissioner.

You know, it has to do somewhat with what kind of society do we want, but it also has to do with what increases the lethality of the military. I have written enough next-of-kin letters to say we don’t want to write next-to-kin letters to parents, to young twenty-two-year-old, twenty-year-old widows to say, well, we tried something that more than likely the Olympic Committee won’t do, which is have only one athletic team go—from each country. We have a male and a female because there’s different aspects to male and female athleticism. We would never accept saying that we’re not going to have female teams in the Olympics, nor should we.

As we look at this issue, we also have to look at young people coming of age. It’s not fair to say to the young sergeants and lieutenants, you figure it out. You figure it out. You’ve got young people falling in love in your unit, sort if out, OK? When you’re going to make a change that drastic, make sure that what you’ve done is set up those young NCOs and young officers for success, and make sure it makes the military more lethal.

I’ll just stop right there because I think to go beyond that, it—I remember a big, tough argument at a university. And when offered that if we are going to live by this, we—and women wanted to play football, they should be on the team. And when I likened it—what would happen to them in the battlefield if they lost the playing field, that they would change their name from a great university—Stanford University—to the Community College of Such-and-Such, change their colors from red and white to a different one, they—I was immediately told that’s not fair. And, Commissioner, from your background, you know what I said: Welcome to my world. My world’s not fair.

How do we protect this experiment? I’m not against the issue just intrinsically, but we had better not just say here, Sergeant, you figure it out; it’s your problem. No, no, no. It’s our society’s problem. And we’re going around outraged these days, shocked by the level of some of the coarseness of our society, especially towards women—young women. And I think we have to be darn careful going to where the veneer of civilization is peeled off you in combat completely, and at times you’re just fighting to keep from going insane or losing your ethics and your morality. And in that environment you’re going to put young men and women, at a time when they find—grow very fond of one another, and a respect for their sexuality should be part of that decision.

HAASS: Ambassador Platt.

Q: For you, I’ll stand up. (Laughter.)

MATTIS: Well, then I’ll stand up for you, sir. (Laughter.) Yeah, I know who you are. (Applause.)

Q: For decades our policy towards China has been a combination of competition and cooperation. But during this past several years the balance has tipped, and in the strategic documents that have come out China is now labeled an adversary. What is it that’s tipped the balance?

MATTIS: Right. It’s a great question. As we look at the world, what has tipped that balance? And I wouldn’t say—like, for example, Ambassador, in the—in the National Defense Strategy we call them a competitor. And what we’re trying for is not great-power deterrence; we’re trying for great-power peace.

I took my counterpart down to Mount Vernon when he flew in to see me. He’d invited me to Beijing. He treated me—the evening was so good it made Las Vegas look like a cheap date. (Laughter.) And so I invited him, and we flew him in by helicopter on one of those perfect January crisp days just getting towards sundown, the city all looking beautiful with the blue sky, brought him into the lawn at Mount Vernon. And there General George Washington met him, the actor who plays George Washington—(laughter)—and I said—and I told him, I want you to show him how a revolutionary general leads, you know. You know what I’m driving at here. So he toured the house and everything. He saw the key that Lafayette gave him, the key to the Bastille, that still hangs in the house there.

And then all of our staff—he had about fifty, I had about fifty—went off to a greenhouse where we were going to join them for dinner. He and I went for a walk. And we were walking along and I said, I got to ask you a question. I said, are we going to be as stupid as the Europeans twice in the twentieth century and end up inflaming the world in a war, or are we going to figure a way to manage our differences, two nuclear-armed powers? And remember, I said, in all of America’s short history compared to yours, only from 1946 or so to 1972 were we ever adversaries, ideological or military. Up until then and since then we’ve not been. And he said—and then I said, do you realize what America’s role was in putting together a global order that allowed the hardworking Chinese people, once they were permitted, to rise economically? And he said yes. He stopped. We were talking. I had this little lantern I’m carrying, you know, like in the old days. And through the translator he said, yes, and we know America had the most to do with it. And then we continued.

We can find a way to work with China, but we are going to have to confront China where they are interrupting the universal or the order—the orders of the world where freedom of navigation and all. I mean, I told him—I said—he was upset that I’d disinvited him from the biggest—the biggest naval exercise in the world, RIMPAC. And I said, what did you expect me to do? I said, you had promised in the Rose Garden President Obama—your president had promised he would not militarize the Spratly Islands. And now you’ve put weapons on it, you know, two months before the exercise. And there was talk when I was in Beijing, well, they were defensive weapons and this sort of thing. Well, I told him I’d been shot at with offensive and defensive weapons—(laughter)—and I don’t know the difference, OK? (Laughter.)

But my point is I am convinced we can find a way to work with China and for there to be peace. There doesn’t—there are a lot of decisions to be taken, but it’s going to take—it’s going to take alliances, again. They are trying to gain a veto authority over their neighbors’ diplomatic, economic, and security interests. That we have to recognize. They’re piling massive debt, as Prime Minister Modi has pointed out, on other nations, and then when those nations can’t service the debt they take sovereignty, like over the port in Sri Lanka. There are ways that China is working right now that we can no longer be deluded by our own desires. We are going to have to accept China as it is. And watching what’s going on in Hong Kong right now, their authoritarian mode against their own people, it takes a real stretch of imagination to say they would treat foreigners better than they’d treat their own people at home if that’s their worldview. So we’re going to have to recognize it, cooperate where we can, collaborate where we can, but also confront where we must.

HAASS: Jim, I want to end with one quote of yours. In the book there are various quotations about leadership, and one of them is: “American democracy is an experiment. We must preserve it or it will be destroyed.” Are you worried about the latter? And what is your advice, if you are, about what needs to be done to preserve it?

MATTIS: I think the most important thing is what I mentioned a little bit earlier, Richard, about when an election’s over, let’s all go to work and try to govern. It doesn’t mean we can’t have good arguments. And we are set up to have three coequal branches of government. They all have a voice. And one of them, just to add fuel to the fire, they’ve—we’ve got a bicameral legislature. But if we don’t start working together, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to turn this over in as good a shape or better than we received it.

There is a word I never use when I have been drinking adult beverages called “usufruct,” and you can see why. (Laughter.) But it basically means that, you know—in an agrarian society what it meant was a son or daughter, they can take over the land of their parents, you can chop down the trees, change the watercourse—you can do whatever you want, plant crops—but you must turn the land over in as good a shape or better than you found it. And I think that is what has to guide us right now, as good a shape or better. I’m not convinced what we’re turning over to the younger generation is in as good a shape or better than it was given to us, and that does worry me.

HAASS: Jim Mattis, good luck with Call Sign Chaos.

Members of the Council, just to let you know, this is the beginning of an extraordinary season here. This Thursday night we have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, in Washington for dinner. A week after that we have the head of the central bank of what’s still the United Kingdom—hopefully it will be for long. And then later this month we will be host to who knows how many world foreign ministers, prime ministers, presidents, and kings with the—with the General Assembly.

But it will be hard to top what we just had. Jim Mattis, thank you very much. (Applause.)

MATTIS: Thank you, Richard. (Applause.)


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