September 06, 2019

Jim Mattis

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis joins ​Firing Line​ eight months after resigning from the Trump administration to discuss leadership, the importance of allies, and America’s role in conflicts in the Middle East. Mattis also explains why we should never label political opponents ‘enemies of the people’, and addresses his criticism of then-Vice President Joe Biden in his new book.

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He’s a four-star general who never quit, but after two years as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, he resigned, this week, on ‘Firing Line.’

All I can say is, he is the real deal.

When Jim Mattis went in for his job interview, he didn’t expect this to happen.

We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our Secretary of Defense.

What about the President himself?
Under what circumstances will you advocate for your views forcefully and frankly?

On every circumstance, Senator.

He arrived at the Pentagon after a legendary career in the Marines, becoming the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.
But Mattis left the Pentagon early…
I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.

…over clear policy differences with the President and concerns about America’s treatment of allies.
That was eight months ago.
What does Secretary Mattis say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Additional funding is provided by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Secretary Mattis.

It’s good to be here, I think.

You spent 41 years as a Marine, and you were a battlefield commander in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Three years after retiring from the Marine Corps, you returned to serve as the Defense Secretary to Donald Trump.
And you resigned in 2018 and returned to the Hoover Institution, a think tank in California, where I am also affiliated.
You have written a book called ‘Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,’ and it is primarily about your 41-year career in the Marines and how it prepared you to be the Secretary of Defense.

Mm-hmm.

First, will you tell me, what does ‘Chaos’ stand for?

Well, ‘Chaos’ was a call sign that I chose after it was used by some rather irreverent subordinates.
They’d written ‘Chaos’ on a whiteboard.
It’s meant kind of tongue in cheek — the ‘Colonel Has Another Outstanding Suggestion.’
They weren’t quite as convinced of my wisdom as I was, but I thought that would make a good call sign, so I adopted it from them.

Does chaos serve as an advantage in the military?

It does. It does.
It is our intent to promote chaos in the enemy ranks, to have them meet cascading dilemmas, but even in our own ranks, sometimes, having a little bit of chaos — questioning assumptions, disrupting things — can cause change.
And so, you use disruptive chaos in your own organization, whether you’re in business or the military, and you use destructive chaos on the enemy.

So, 1969, you’re 18 years old, and you enlist in the Marines when you’re in college.

Right.

This is a time when, frankly, men and women — men, mostly — are dying by the thousands in Vietnam.

Mm-hmm.

What is it about the Marines that encouraged you and appealed to you in that moment in our history?

At that time, the draft was on.
We assumed we would all have to go in one form or another.
And it was just kind of a tradition with some of the people I was hanging out with that we would go into the Marines when we had to go.
So I signed up to do my patriotic duty for a couple years and fell in love with it and stayed in for four decades.

You said in your confirmation hearings that your nickname ‘Mad Dog’ was actually given to you by the press.

Yes.

How did that come about?

Must have been a slow news day, but that’s all the more I can tell you, Margaret.
I have no idea where it came from, but it certainly wasn’t from me, or I don’t think from my own troops, actually.

Well, there’s someone else besides the press who seemed to enjoy the title ‘Mad Dog,’ and that was the President of the United States.

General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.
General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.
‘Mad Dog.’
‘Mad Dog.’
‘Mad Dog.’

Did you ever think that, perhaps, your nickname ‘Mad Dog’ helped get you the job?

Well, you’d have to ask the President on that, but I had not met the President, of course, before the — before I was called in for a job interview.
And we worked together for two years, and he appeared to be quite fond of the nickname, I understand.

You write about that first meeting with Donald Trump as a wide-ranging 40-minute conversation…
Mm-hmm.

…that, afterwards, you were surprised…
Mm-hmm.

…that he decided to ask you to be his Secretary of Defense.

Right.

Why were you surprised?

Well, we had a good talk.
It was very frank, very open.
I… When asked about NATO, I stated my belief in NATO, as the strongest, probably most successful military alliance in history.
We talked a little bit about other things, and I disagreed on another issue, as well.
So, walking out of the room, I thought, probably, ‘Well, that’s that — on my way back to Hoover Institution at Stanford University.’
So I was a little surprised on the steps when he said I was the real deal.

All I can say is, he is the real deal.
He is the real deal.
Thank you, Jim.

One of the other issues you disagreed about, it was reported in the press, was torture.

Well, yes.
I didn’t believe in torture.
I was against it on ethical grounds and what it does to our people.

Did you see it as a sign of strength or encouragement that the President was willing to pick you to be his Secretary of Defense, despite a disagreement, and that he was open to an alternative argument about…
A great point.

…about an issue that he had had a strong view about previously?

Well, it’s a great point, Margaret, that I disagreed with him.
I assumed that I owed him my candid advice, and I gave him that right from the job interview on.
He hired me, despite the disagreement.
And we, I thought, had a good relationship all the way through.

You have been very clear that you don’t want to talk about a sitting president.
Can you explain to the American people why it is that you believe you need a period of silence?

Yes. I certainly can.
When a person leaves an administration, when you’ve been in the most sensitive discussions, when you’ve made clear in a letter of resignation there’s a policy disagreement, the threat to America doesn’t go away because I walk out of the administration.
The President still has the toughest job in the world.
And the protection of this country is not served by someone walking out and immediately talking in a way that is further divisive in a country with a political rancor right now that is expanding, it seems, day by day.
It’s important for us to really not add to that — fuel to that fire.

So, you’ve also said that there’s a period that you owe the President your silence, but then, there’s a period when you will speak.

Right.

How will you determine when the right time is?

Well, I’ll know it when I see it, but it’ll be, Margaret, about strategy and policy.
For those who are waiting for me with bated breath to start talking about political assessments of the current president or past presidents, that — I’m not going to do that.

If you believed that a candidate for the presidency were unfit to be president, would you speak out?

Yes.

As a 41-year Marine, you spent your life fighting America’s enemies, from ISIS to Al-Qaeda to the Taliban.

Mm-hmm.

What does the word ‘enemy’ mean to you?

Well, enemy is someone who would take apart our democracy, someone who would destroy the democracy itself.
It’s not someone who has a different vision of where America needs to go.
I don’t consider Americans who disagree with me to be enemy of the people or terrorists or something like that.
They’re just someone to be argued with.
I like a good, hard argument about the issues.
And then, let’s go off and have a beer or root beer together — a Dr. Pepper — and sit down and enjoy and find out about each other’s company and each other’s family and that sort of thing.

So you don’t think it’s okay to label our political opponents as enemies?

Never.
Fellow Americans may have different ideas.
We’ve had that all through our history.
That’s what makes democracy work is learning how to compromise and carry forward.
Very few things are matters of principle.
Most of the time, they’re matters of effectiveness — how are we gonna make this work?

I want to talk to you about something that you write about extensively in the book, which is the importance of allies.

Mm-hmm.

You write extensively and speak extensively and even mentioned in your resignation letter the importance of allies.

Mm-hmm.

Can you explain that?

Winston Churchill summed it up pretty well when he said, ‘The only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them’ — in other words, you need allies.
And history is very compelling that nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither.
When the Greatest Generation came home from World War II and established NATO, the idea was the Americans would help keep Western European democracies free, but the first time NATO goes to war is when the United States is attacked on 9/11.
And I go into Afghanistan a short time after that, and here I am with militaries, guys out fighting alongside us from Canada and the United Kingdom, from Norway and Germany, from New Zealand, Australia, from Turkey, from Jordan — they were there not because they’d been attacked.
They were allies.
They were partners.
They had shared values with us.
They considered terrorism a threat to them, as well.

In your view, how strong is the NATO alliance today?

Oh, it’s very strong.
Nations — democratic nations want to be part of NATO.
They — No one goes out and solicits or recruits them.
They come in wanting to join.
And what can be a stronger statement about NATO’s relevance and NATO’s trustworthiness than nations wanting to join up?
Now, there have always been tensions.
Those are normal in alliances.
Those are normal between nations.
So, we’re going through a difficult time right now, but the thing to remember is that what President Trump is asking for when he says nations have to pay more is a modest investment in the best defense in the world.
2% — when you think of how much we spent during the Cold War to prevent war, for example, and we now face a worsening security situation.
So, this is — this is normal that there might be some of these tensions.
It’s not a weakening of the alliance.

But has NATO — has the value of NATO been weakened amongst Americans?
There are voices on the right and the left…
Mm-hmm.

…that question the relevance and the importance of the NATO alliance.

Well, it’s a good question, and I think we have taken peace for granted so long that we forget that NATO was a contributing element, a fundamental element, in keeping the Cold War cold, for example, and not going to a hot war.
We are stronger together.
History is compelling on this.
We don’t need to go back.
The democracies need to stick together, and that’s exactly what I think we’re doing with NATO.

Let’s talk about Iran.

Okay.

It’s well-reported, and you write, actually, in your book that Iran is a perplexing problem and has been throughout the course of your career.

Mm-hmm.

It’s even reported that you told the Obama administration that your biggest concerns were Iran, Iran, and Iran.

We have to recognize that the authoritarians that rule in Iran right now are part of a revolutionary regime and they are not acting in the best interests of their own country.
So we’re going to have to work with other countries to restrain their misbehavior.

Should the U.S. President meet with Iran’s leaders?

On that, I don’t like giving advice from what I call the cheap seats, Margaret, because you’ve got the President, the Secretary of State, the CIA, a million of our troops in uniform around the world carrying out policies and sensitive negotiations.
And I just don’t like talking on the sidelines on something like that.

In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Therefore, I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Do you believe now, even though we are out of the Iran deal, that it is still possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?

It’s not only possible, I think it’s critical.

So, how would you do it?

Well, it has to do with aligning the international community and making the diplomatic consequences, economic consequences severe enough that it’s not in their interests for the regime to do this.
You just have…
Opponents would argue that that was what the Iran deal was intended to do.

Mm-hmm.
Well, and sincere people can argue and disagree on that, but I would say, too, that the inspection regime and the sundown provisions are things that legitimately worried a number of people going into that, and we have to — we have to respect that.

So, you have stressed, also, in your writings and in the book, as you reflect on your 41 years in the Marines, the importance of having a political end state…
Yes.

…when the military is engaged in wars.
You say that George H.W. Bush got it right in 1991 in Desert Storm.
He had Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
He said it will not stand.

Mm-hmm.

And we attacked, liberated Kuwait, and then came home.

Mm-hmm.

You have criticized the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for not having the same clear end state.

Mm-hmm.

Is there a recent example, after Desert Storm, where we’ve gotten it right?

I don’t believe so right now, in terms of military interventions, no.
I’m not convinced that our policies over the last some 20 years have been sufficiently rigorous and been sustained.
In other words, we go in to take out terrorists, and we decide we’re gonna establish democracy, and then we’re going to do something else.
There’s ways to get all this right up front, but you need to get it right up front.
You need to have a good, vigorous debate.
You need to be hard on the issue.
And once you establish it, then you have to resource it, and you have to sell it to the American people.
You have to tell them, ‘This is that important for you.’

So, what should we have done differently about our end state for Afghanistan?

The fundamental failure was not knowing what our goal was.
Remember what President Bush did in 1991 when he said, ‘You will free Kuwait.’
And then, there were some who said, you know, ‘Well, we should continue on.
We should march on Baghdad.’
He said, ‘No.
No mission creep.
We’re going to free Kuwait — that’s what the coalition was put together for, and that’s all we’re going to do right now.’
Keeping that sort of pragmatic, strategic sense is absolutely critical because, when I would sign the deployment orders as Secretary of Defense — and I signed many of them — and I’ll even read to you the question I wrote and put on my desk right in front of me when I was signing these orders was, ‘Will this commitment contribute sufficiently to the well-being of the American people to justify putting our troops in a position to die?’
Now, you think about that — to put our troops in a position to die.
That’s what we’re doing when we send them overseas.
The 19-year-olds, the 25-year-olds, the young men and women who are going overseas are giving it 100%. Our policies have to be giving 100% up front when we go into these fights and not be changing constantly as we go through the ups and downs of what a war brings.

Did you sign deployment orders to Afghanistan?

I did.

With that statement in mind, what was your endgame in mind?

The endgame was that we beat the enemy down to a point they’re not a threat outside of Afghanistan, that we build up the Afghan forces to a point that they can keep control of the country, and that we find a way to break Taliban away from the other terrorists there and keep them from being in a position to dictate how the Afghan people will live.

And that is worth putting American men and women…
I believe it is.

As you know, this program was once hosted by William F. Buckley Jr.
And in 1979, General Westmoreland, who was a commanding general in the Vietnam War, came on this program and spoke with William F. Buckley about the role of the military and military leaders and their relationship with their political leaders.
Let’s take a look.

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

As a military leader, were you as persuasive as you think you should have been?

Yeah.
It’s a great question.
As a military leader, I always thought we had an obligation, a responsibility to give the military factors, and we had to be heard on this.
Ultimately, though, we elect our commander in chief.
We have civilian control of the military.
We need to be heard, but we aren’t there to be obeyed.
You know, we have the military under civilian control for a reason, and it’s the right thing to do.

So, the flip side of that coin is that, after 41 years of serving in the military, you became one of those civilian leaders.

Yes.

Were you able to make that transition to setting the policy?

Yeah.
It was very clear — Every one of the former secretaries of Defense, whether they are under Republican or Democrat administrations, were immediately available.
Any time I called them, they grabbed the phone right away.
There’s very much a sense that defense of this country is not a political issue.
Whether I called someone who’d been a Secretary of Defense in a Democrat administration or Republican, they were ready to help and give me advice.

This country spent enormous amount of time and treasure in Iraq.

Yes.

And in your book — one of the chapters of your book is entitled ‘Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory.’

Mm-hmm.

It’s a — It’s a tragic part of the book, in my view.

Yes.

And you write that there had been large-scale combat in Iraq.
And there was a dinner you had in 2010 with Vice President Joe Biden.
Let me read from your book.

This was written before I realized he was running for office, and had I known he was going to be running, I probably would have left it out.
But what I was really talking about there, Margaret, was not Vice President Biden — he was simply the person at the table.
It was the Obama administration had determined to do this.
So I don’t believe in making political statements — it’s not a political statement.
This is a policy statement about President Obama’s policy to end the war.
In fact, what happened was we restarted the war by pulling all our troops out.
We didn’t end it.
We restarted it.

Another thing you talk about in the book is that you say, ‘What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries, it’s our internal divisiveness.’
You talk about our political tribalism in this country perhaps presenting the strongest threat to American democracy.

Mm-hmm.

Why does that concern you more?

Well, because it cuts to the heart of our fundamentals.
We have to be able to compromise in this country to work together because the founding fathers set up the Constitution to be very hard work.
It was never designed to be easy.
It doesn’t always have to be civil.
During elections, they get pretty raucous, but when the election’s over — and this is what concerns me now — when the election’s over, we need to roll up our sleeves and think, ‘Maybe the person I disagree with is right at least once in a while, so let’s figure out how we’re going to solve problems.’
Today, it appears we stay in this divide mode of electioneering instead of the governance mode of getting together and governing the country and doing the best we can.
I grew up raised by the Greatest Generation, but I’m not sure we’re turning over as good a country to our children’s generation, the next generations, as the Greatest Generation turned over to us.

The second thing that you write that poses a critical threat to this nation’s — the sustainability of this democratic experiment is our fiscal sustainability.

Yes.

And you write, ‘No nation in history has maintained its military power if it did not keep its fiscal house in order.’
Why is this so important to you?

You’ve really read the book.
Thank you.
The fiscal situation is such that we of my generation are no longer expecting to pay for all the services we want from government.
We’re borrowing more money, and we turn it over to you young people and say, ‘Thank you very much.
Here’s a debt.
Please carry that debt forward.
We’re not gonna pay our fair share.’
Eventually, history will tell you that no country has maintained its sovereignty or its military security if it didn’t keep its fiscal house in order, and we are not acting responsibly right now.
And it’s not because of defense spending, which is down around 3.1% — it was as high as 40% during the Cold War.
So, this is not a matter of America can’t afford survival.
We can afford survival, but we’re going to have to tax ourselves at a level that’ll allow our children to grow up without an added burden.

You are a warrior-scholar.
You’ve spent your time reading everyone from Marcus Aurelius to Alexander the Great.
Is there another historical analogy that we should be studying now to understand what is happening in the United States today?

There’s studies in history that would show what happens when countries, for example, lost their fiscal sustainability, that decided their militaries were more Petri dishes for social experimenting than for killing the enemy, countries that lost sight of the fact that they had to have a common appreciation of what it was they stood for, and if they lost that, they could not defend themselves.
And generally speaking, I have a great deal of confidence in the American experiment.
The country’s Constitution is very strong.
The question is, do we have the will to work together, the political will to quit just calling each other names?
We can be hard on issues.
We can really be strong on the issues, but we don’t have to be hard on each other as fellow Americans.
We can figure out how to do this.

General Mattis, thank you for your lifetime of service to this country.

The country’s worth it.

Thank you for being here.

Sure, Margaret.
Thank you.

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