I would like to thank our sponsor for this event, the University of Virginia. Their support has been really important to us this year.
Today, we welcome retired four-star General and Former Defense Secretary, James Mattis. Over the course of four decades, General Mattis commanded Marines in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. He also served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation, and Head of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which is responsible for protecting American security interests across the Middle East, including in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
In December 2016, he was nominated to be the 26th U.S. Secretary of Defense, by then President-Elect, Donald Trump. He served in the President's Cabinet for just over two years before resigning in February of this year.
This fall, he published "Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead," a bestselling memoire detailing his distinguished military career and leadership philosophy.
So, today, we'll talk with him about his book, his storied career in the Marine Corps, as well as the current state of global instability, U.S. foreign policy, and the country's ongoing military commitments around the world.
We will also discuss The Washington Post investigation by Craig Whitlock published this week called "The Afghanistan Papers." It's a confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post after a three-year legal battle.
The notes, transcripts, and audio recordings from more than 400 interviews conducted by a government agency reveal that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the whole truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the last 18 years, hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
We will ask General Mattis for his perspective on these findings as someone who led troops in Afghanistan and has been outspoken on the U.S. strategy, there.
So, I'd now like to welcome to the stage my colleague, David Ignatius, and General James Mattis. Thank you.
MR. IGNATIUS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is a special pleasure to have Secretary Mattis with us for this discussion of Securing Tomorrow, securing the future, and especially here at holiday time when we're trying to think together, think about things that matter.
So, I want to begin where Kris left off, with a piece of reporting that has been published over the last days that we're calling "The Afghanistan Papers." It's something we've worked very hard on, as Kris said, for three years, gathering the results of a study by our government into lessons learned in this long--America's longest war in Afghanistan.
You've lived this in a way that few commanders have. You were one of the first on the ground in Kandahar, in 2001. Your involvement in that war, as in Iraq, has been long and persistent.
And I would just ask you to begin by thinking, with one of the hundreds of people who served in Afghanistan who have been reading this reporting and have been communicating, sharing with us at The Washington Post what they feel.
This is from a former Marine medic who is now living in North Carolina, who saw some of the worst of it, and he said, and I'm quoting from him: "The most devastating revelation from your reporting was the confirmation of what many of us new inside. There was no plan, no strategy, and no will to change anything about that."
I think that's the clearest theme that comes through this reporting, is the lack of a clear direction to limit missions, define them, and then succeed at them. And I wonder if you share that as somebody who was so deeply involved and knows so many people, so many lives, that were lost.
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, it is investigative reporting. I think it's been well done, in that sense, but I have a hard time seeing it as all that revelatory.
These were issues, as I went through--and I read it all. I went through all of it, the various days of reporting that have been in your paper. And many of these issues have been brought up by your reporters or New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Financial Times, others. And the difficulty of Afghanistan was well understood very early on. There was nothing to build on there. There were no institutions. The population was not educated, as you know, because the Taliban would not allow education--not just of girls, which they prohibited, but certainly of the boys, too.
We were there because we'd been attacked out of there. That was the reason we went. And it was very, very hard work. This was noted in your papers. I've walked the ground with your reporters beside me who were embedded in the units who were watching this close up. The reporting, I thought, was pretty accurate.
The idea that there was any kind of an effort to hide this perplexes me. I still remember a Senator saying he would have to suspend disbelief to believe some of the reporting. And later, as Secretary of State was hard driving on how we were going to end this war, and the guidance that Secretary of State was putting out during the Obama administration. And this has gone on for many years.
And I think when you look at the progress--and there is undeniable progress--in education, in public health, and other areas. And there have been terrible consequences under violence. The violence has just been heartbreaking, there.
But we're up against an enemy that wittingly targets women and children. I mean, this is part of their strategy. And we have an army that we are promoting there and to fight for their own country. And you'll have to check on this, but I believe the casualties of that army are somewhere around 28,500 dead since 2015, and it's still in the fight. That would break many armies. Those casualties would have destroyed the will to fight, and they are still fighting today. And the growing special forces capability, which is probably one of the best capabilities against an enemy like this is proving to be quite effective against this enemy.
It's a complex issue. After the Russian invasion, the entire society was torn apart and we had to start--worse than from scratch. We had to start with people that didn't believe in tomorrow; they couldn't. They were out to do whatever they could today to take care of their family, their tribe, and it's been maddeningly complex.
We've also taken our eye off the ball, at times. I was there in 2001, early 2002. And I was one of those pulled out to prepare for the invasion of Iraq.
But right now, I think we have to look--when we talk about securing the future, the theme we have this morning, is Khalilzad, what he is doing, carrying out the President's, I think, rightful desire to open negotiations with the Taliban that would eventually lead to the Afghan Government negotiating with the Taliban. I think that was the right thing to do, to try to end this through political reconciliation.
Remember, the South Asia strategy that comes out in August of 2017 is all about getting to reconciliation. And I think right now we need to support the diplomats and the troops in the field, learn from these mistakes. They're well documented. Remember, this is the Department of Defense trying to learn from all of this. So, we just have to move forward and make sure we do the best we can to end this fight. But the enemy does get a vote, and we have to recognize that.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, this exercise that we were drawing into the public light, but was commissioned by the government, by the State Department, was called "Lessons Learned."
And I just want to ask you, because, as I say, you were one of the commanders who was most involved in the early days. What, for you, are the lessons learned from America's longest war?
You said how hard it was. We get that. You said we understood difficult choice. We get that, but what are the lessons learned for next time for you?
GENERAL MATTIS: I think one of the most important ones is to define the problem in very specific terms. If you don't come to an agreement on what the problem is, and in defining it, and if you don't include the Congress in that decision, then you're liable to find that you're addressing problems that haven't been well enough defined. And at that point, katy bar the door. The effort's going to go in any direction, and that's not an effective way to fight something like this.
Also, to have limits of, I would say, ambition. In other words, when you define the problem, define the solution, but do not try to make everything right at one time. This was going to be a long-term effort, and enlist as many allies as you can bring into the fold. Enlist them early. Be upfront about the costs, this sort of thing.
Remember, this had the largest wartime coalition in modern history, at one point, 49 nations with us. There are still somewhere, I think, upwards of 30 or 35 nations that are engaged in this effort, but bring them in, as well.
You'll notice that when the South Asia strategy comes out of this administration, it's basically four "R"s. the first R is "regionalize it." Don't just look at Afghanistan. Look at Central Asia, look at Pakistan, India, Iran. And then, realign your force to the specific problem, which, for us, was the security, providing the security. And then, reinforce that effort now that all you're doing is promoting the Afghan Army's fight. Look at the difference in casualties between ours and the Afghan Army's, you know, who's fighting.
But it's all driving towards reconciliation. And when you get that level of clarity, then you see efforts, diplomatic efforts--imperfect, but at least targeted on the right direction. And I think those lessons are critical, that we embrace those lessons and teach those lessons in our war colleges and our universities.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, thinking about that last R of reconciliation, Ambassador Khalilzad is back at work negotiating. And you said earlier you thought that effort was appropriate, was part of the strategy that you embraced as Secretary of Defense.
If Ambassador Khalilzad can be successful and get a real deal with the Taliban that he and the President are comfortable with, do you think it would be appropriate to invite the Taliban leadership to a signing ceremony at Camp David, as has happened with some other peace agreements that we made?
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, I don't want to speculate that far ahead. The Taliban has not proven trustworthy. So, in this case, instead of "trust but verify," I think we're going to have to go with, "verify, then trust."
And what would we specifically look at here? One is the break with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda attacked this country. From the very beginning, we've told the Taliban, "You break with Al Qaeda. Our issue is with them; it's not with you."
The second is to continue the fight against ISIS. They've been fighting ISIS as we have been. It's an ongoing fight. We'll need to keep counterterrorism troops there for some time to keep Al Qaeda from regenerating and to keep ISIS down.
And the third one is just quit murdering the Afghan people. That's not a real high bar to start with reconciliation, bringing them back in, okay?
GENERAL MATTIS: So, I think the President was right to start the negotiation with the Taliban. I think he was right to call it off when the bombings occurred and say there's a cost to this.
Remember, the Taliban's goal is to take over this country, and they've been stopped in that at great cost to the Afghan people, great cost to the Afghan Army. But they have not been successful.
I mean, if you read this, you'd almost think it's a total disaster, and it is not that at all. It has been hard as hell, but it is not just one undistinguished defeat after another. They are the ones who are on the back foot. And you can say, well, they control more ground right now. A lot of the ground that they control doesn't have any population in it. And the Army is not trying to protect that area, or has very limited population.
But that's not to dismiss the enormous--the enormous sacrifice of the Afghan people as they continue to fight. Why is that army still fighting, having suffered that many casualties if the whole thing is just a waste and it can't be successful. You couldn't find many armies that could take those casualties and stay in the brawl.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, last question on Afghanistan, and then we'll move to another subject. On this theme that we've been talking about, in effect, of trying to be straight with the American people about conflicts like this, would it be your judgment, as somebody who was so involved in Afghanistan that, given what we see now, it's likely that in that warzone, as in many other places we fought, in South Korea, in Europe, other places--that we will have to keep some residual troop presence for counterterrorism reasons, primarily, going into the future, that people should just understand that that's so? Is that your judgment?
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, when you say, "We would," I would say the international community will have to keep troops there into the future.
I think, ladies and gentlemen, that terrorism is an ambient threat. As long as any of us in this room are alive, we're going to have to deal with it. And how do we deal with it in a way that keeps the terrorists on the back foot? How do we protect innocent people, not just here in America but everywhere? That's an international responsibility. And we have a lot of nations with us. Where we are firm and we are resolved, nations rally around us.
I mean, getting up to 49 nations in Afghanistan is one indication, but look over in the fight against ISIS, where over 70 nations and international organizations were united, and 16 had troops engaged in the fight.
So, these are problems that we're going to have to deal with. And we may want a war over, we may even declare a war over, we may even order our troops home. And a couple of years later, as you saw--as you experienced in Iraq, we had to send the troops back in exactly as our intelligence community forecast, by the way.
So, we're going to have to deal with the reality of it. It's best done through allies, alliances, coalitions, working together. We're going to have to do that with partners, with allies, sometimes with nations we don't agree with on everything, but we're going to have to do it.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me turn to a question that affects one of our most elite military units, and that's the Navy SEALs. There's been a now famous incident in which the SEALs were seeking to discipline a warrant officer nearing retirement named Eddie Gallagher. He had been convicted of a lesser offence by a court martial, and there was an intervention by President Trump who said he should keep his trident pin, in effect--ordered, regardless of what the disciplinary panel would have done internally--order that that pin be kept.
Did you think that presidential intervention was appropriate? And what are the consequences of something like that for internal discipline and accountability in an elite service like the SEALs?
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, I think when you look at this situation you need to broaden it in order to really understand the factors that play--that are at play.
And remember that the Uniform Code of Military Justice is established under the U.S. Constitution, because our framers knew that those we give weapons to in this country have to be governed by a different set of regulations than the population at large.
And under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was the latest in a history of these rules that came out in the late 1940s and modified often since then, the defense is actually stronger. The defendants' rights are actually stronger in a military court than in a civilian court. Just read F. Lee Bailey's book, "The Defense Never Rests." And as one of the most aggressive defense counsels in our history, he said he would rather a court--defend--defend in a military court than a civilian court in his book.
And the reason is you have more rights in order to prevent the military court system becoming what you and I would call a "kangaroo court." So, you give the defense more rights. And when that court acts, you--for most of us in the military who have an intimate knowledge of it, we have a great deal of confidence that justice has been adhered to, in the true sense of what justice is all about toward a person accused of a crime by the government.
So, when this came out, certainly, under civilian control, the military--the elected Commander-in-Chief has authority to do what President Trump did. I think that that authority, we want--we want it used with wisdom and with prudence, but he certainly had the right to do this.
You asked about the consequences, and that's more complex. This one time, I don't think there's any big impact on good order and discipline. One time, it won't do that. The institution is so strong, the culture is strong in the military of good order and discipline that it will hold.
Now, if this sort of situation was to arise again, you might change your assessment of what the implications are. But for right now, I think everyone is very much aware that good order and discipline required in our military--and I've seen my own Marine unit in a fight on one occasion, go into an enemy unit that was not well disciplined, and the results were a calamity for that enemy unit. So, I have seen on the battlefield the reason why we need a very well disciplined military, why we need one that remembers, in these kinds of wars, especially every battlefield, is also a humanitarian field.
It's why I adopted one of the sayings from an old, dead Roman general of, "No better friend, no worse enemy." It implies discrimination or took--from the physicians' oath, "First, do no harm." The troops are imbued with this, and the ethics of the troops, I think, will hold fast.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, I hear in your statement a pretty clear warning against any future interventions, while they may be within the authority of a President--
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah.
MR. IGNATIUS: --that they could have negative consequences.
GENERAL MATTIS: I wouldn't say that. I mean, if the authority is not used in a way that accommodates good order and discipline, that does not respect the UCMJ, I would grow concerned.
But I do not want to see it where civilian oversight of the military removes this authority from the civilians who oversee the military. It's a legitimate point or authority that the President has.
MR. IGNATIUS: And speaking about civilians in a responsible position, I'd just like to ask your brief assessment of former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who was fired--sent a letter to the President that in some ways echoed your own letter of resignation in talking about the importance of maintaining the fundamentals in the military.
You know Secretary Spencer. What's your judgment about him?
GENERAL MATTIS: I have high regard for Secretary Spencer. I trust him.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, let me turn to an issue that you discussed in your book and you certainly had to discuss in every session like this about your book, and that's President Trump's Washington, the world that we're living in and we'll live in for a while longer.
You were very careful in your book and in your public comments not to criticize President Trump directly. The closest you come in the book, which I commend to people--I don't just put these yellow Post-Its to show off for my friend, Secretary Mattis--
GENERAL MATTIS: Washington Post, please give him a pay rise for that.
MR. IGNATIUS: I'm for that. Thank you very much, sir.
MR. IGNATIUS: The closest you come to criticism is in your epilogue, where you write, "We all know that we're better than our current politics. Tribalism need not disrupt our experiment, our American experiment."
So, that's a nice, brief statement of our dilemma. And I want to ask you, what's the way out of this mess that we're in, where we are consumed by divisions that are almost tribal? How do we get out of this?
GENERAL MATTIS: What a question. I became more aware, ladies and gentlemen, as I came off active duty. I drove across country, kind of wandering my way west, west of the Rockies, and stopping in a lot of towns, meeting with some families.
And I became aware of just this anger in America. I'd been distracted by the war. I'd focused, even when I was in the States, on the war. And basically, for my last dozen years, I'd grown perhaps somewhat apart from the country.
And so, because of that time lapse, it was kind of a slap in the face to hear the anger and frustration of many people, much of it directed at this town, that it couldn't operate well and that sort of thing, in terms of dealing with the fundamental issues that our country was dealing with, and a growing disenchantment with politics.
So, I spent more time looking at this when I was at Stanford where I was working there for three years before I became Secretary of Defense. And then, obviously, living in the town as Secretary of Defense, I could see it.
And one thing it did, it drove me--when I wrote the--and directed and helped write the national defense strategy, I took it up to Capitol Hill, and I met with many Senators and Congressmen, Congresswomen, and reviewed it with them and took their ideas on board because I wanted a bipartisan support.
And you've seen that now three years running, it looks like, record-breaking budgets, for a military that was woefully unprepared--the costs of war, the lack of consistent, predictable funding had done some real damage to its readiness. And we've had remarkable bipartisan support for it.
So, what am I saying? There are ways to bring us together on certain issues. But one point I would make is, when I'm in meetings with people now, I try to understand the other person's position as well as they do, or better. I try to study it from their perspective so I really understand. And where did I get this from, because I have no original ideas, okay? Let's just settle that right up front.
GENERAL MATTIS: But George Washington, as he put a revolutionary army together to fight alongside the French, freemen who did not want to take orders from people at all, but he realized that he had to lead an organization that was synergistic, that was cohesive; that, for all its differences of Delaware watermen, from Virginia planters, from Georgia farmers, to New England clerks and all. As he put that together, he had a very boring way to go about leading, in some ways. He would listen very carefully. He would learn from them. He wasn't just there to rebuff them. Then, he would help them, and then he would lead. And I matched that in NATO. I matched it everywhere I was as Secretary of Defense, and I'm convinced now, if we would spend more time understanding each other, spending time really understanding each other, we can then find common ground to address problems that we define together.
And I think that's necessary because we've got to stop scorching each other with this idea that we can tear our own country apart, but somehow this great big experiment we call America will survive. No, it will not, if we don't get together.
I mean, I understand, if we were running for election, David, I would say, "I'm smart; you're dumb." It's not real pretty, but okay. And you turn around and say, "I'm right and you're wrong, Mattis."
Okay, elections, they don't have to be civil, either. Welcome to democracy. But when the election is over, it's time to roll up our sleeves and work together. And we seem to have forgotten that governance takes unity. Elections are about division, governance is about unity. And if we start unifying by understanding each other's point of view instead of calling people names or enemies of the state or terrorists or anything else, then I think we can start putting it back together.
But I'd be very alarmed--I'm less concerned right now with foreign enemies than I am to what we are doing to ourselves.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, that's super powerful, and we're all going to think about that.
And I want to ask you, just to take that a step further, because I think we all share that idea that we are tearing ourselves apart. And we don't really know how to stop doing that. You can say, "Listen to the other guy," and try to--but we all experience the ground on--the ground in the middle of our country, of our national life, on which we make decisions shrinking day by day, and people on the wings getting louder.
And so, I guess that's my question to you: How do we rebuild the public space where you make decisions and you govern and you talk to each other? How do we think about getting that started, whoever is president.
GENERAL MATTIS: I think first we have to look at history. And it was really interesting, I found 29-year-old Abe Lincoln's first recorded speech, I believe, was in 1839, and he talks about the perpetuation of our institutions, not the catchiest title.
But it caught my attention so much I wrote a piece in The Atlantic, because it got me thinking, because in that speech, there is one part of it--it's a very long speech--where Abraham Lincoln says that, "All the armies of Europe, Asia, Africa combined with all the money in the world and their military chest, even if they had a Bonaparte"--Napoleon, obviously, who had died a decade or two before that speech. He said, "They could not cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and take a gulp of water out of the Ohio. He said, "We'd stop them," basically.
And to paraphrase, he said if this thing is going to die, it'll die by suicide, this "thing" being our experiment. I think we've gotten so complacent that somehow we can tear this country apart and somehow it will survive, when civilization is rather fragile.
I've been around the world and I've seen civilization where it's collapsed. You led off with an example of it and how hard it is to put it back together.
On the other hand, our Constitution is very hardy. Thank God for the Founding Fathers. And so, if we will stay true to one another in defining the problems, rather--you know, let's be hard on the problem, not on each other. Let's go back to the days when President Reagan, being chewed out by his scheduler because she sees another night where he's having Tip O'Neill at the White House when they want him to do other things. She said, "Isn't he your enemy?" And Reagan, in his kind way, just looked at her and said, "Not after 5:00 p.m."
You know, I mean, what's wrong with getting back to have a good, rousing argument and then going and having a beer with each other--root beer for the Mormons--
GENERAL MATTIS: --and we can sit there and talk about their daughter they're trying to get into college, or their son with multiple sclerosis or something.
It's like we got these plastic figures. We look at each other just as adversaries, now, if they don't agree with us. I mean, I learned the hard way that even people I disagree with could be right once or twice a day. And when that happens, it's a little humbling to realize how strongly held my view was, and guess what? It's wrong. It's just plain wrong. And so, I think a little humility, a sense of history, and a sense of brotherly or sisterly love for one another.
You know, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "You don't drive out hate with more hate. You don't drive out darkness with more darkness. You use light." You know, you drive out hate with love. And without getting all touchy-feely--I'm a Marine infantry guy--it wouldn't go over well.
GENERAL MATTIS: But for God's sakes, I couldn't run a military unit the way this town is running itself right now. And those are decisions. This is not automatic pilot. We've found ways through worse than this in the past, and we shouldn't wait for a crisis to unify ourselves. Let's do what we can do now so we can at least look our kids in the eye and say, "We're not going to turn over a pile of mud to you. We're actually going to give you"--I mean, a lot of you with my color hair in this room, we were raised by the greatest generation. We were, and remain to this day, the luckiest generation. But are we really doing our responsibility to the next generation? I think not, not on the national debt, not on all the vexing issues. And we ought to knock it off and get back to work. This country's worth saving.
You know, I got thanked for my service when I walked in downstairs by one of your security guys. And let me just say this right up front, I was taught this by Corporal Kyle Carpenter, the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, who's got a great book out. I recommend you read his before you read mine. And he was in the back seat of a taxi and he was on his way. He's a young guy, not used to giving speeches. He's going over his notes and the taxi driver's talking to him, a little distracting, about how he'd come to America from Africa and what it was like in Africa.
And finally, Kyle put his notes down and was listening to him. He said--and he's listening to this guy tell how rough it was on his family, his sister, and everything. And as--they get to where he's going and the guy said, "I know you were in the military. I heard you on the phone, earlier, talking to the people who were waiting for you, here." And he says, "Thank you for your service."
And Kyle, without a moment's hesitation, he said it just came out--he was telling me this, he said, "You're worth it."
So, let me say something here: The Washington Post is worth the service, okay, it's worth everything we did to keep this experiment alive. I don't care who you voted for, Republican or Democrat. I don't care if you're male or female. I don't care if you're black, white, brown, yellow. I don't care about that. I don't care where you go to church or you don't, or synagogue or mosque. I don't care even who you go to bed with. I'm not interested, okay? I don't want to know. As long as it's two consenting adults or--whatever.
GENERAL MATTIS: But I would just tell you, you're worth it, okay. So, let's get back to acting like we're worth it, because we know deep down inside just how damn lucky we are to be in this country right now.
MR. IGNATIUS: That's a keeper. We'll go back to that on tape.
So, I wouldn't be faithful to this audience if I didn't acknowledge that, as we're talking up here on stage, the House Judiciary Committee may be getting ready to vote on Articles of Impeachment. And we've talked about how the country's tearing itself apart, what a divisive period it is. We're on the eve of a very unusual event in our country, which is the likely impeachment of our President.
And so, I want to ask you how, in this process that is probably ahead, we can keep some balance and clarity. I don't expect you to talk about the substantive issues, but I want to ask you one thing which is related to this, and that is the importance of the military assistance commitments that the United States, through congressionally appropriated aid, provides to our allies.
Ukraine is such an ally. Congress voted to provide assistance, and it appears that that assistance was halted for a period of some months. Just asking about that basic issue, what do you feel, as a former Secretary of Defense and a commander, about intervening or in some way slowing, stopping that provision of assistance that's been voted by Congress?
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, when I went to the Pentagon, I only had three lines of effort as the Secretary of Defense. It was a job I never aspired to. I'd been the Executive Secretary for Dr. Perry and Senator Cohen. I'd been the Senior Military Assistant for Rudy de Leon and Mr. Wolfowitz during the transition.
I'd spent a lot of time with Secretaries of Defense. As the Executive Secretary, I'd woken him at night. I knew the gravity of the job. And I thought, we only wanted a few lines of focus.
And one was, I wanted the military to be more lethal. I wanted it to be so lethal that when our diplomats spoke, people listened to them, and deter war whenever possible and resolve it as quickly as possible, if we had to fight.
Second was to build broader and deeper alliances, make more allies and deepen the trust with our allies.
And the third was an internal one: Reform the practices so that we could look Congress in the eye and say we'll spend the money wisely.
So, the alliances, probably that piece took probably 80 percent of my effort. I had a great Deputy, Pat Shanahan, who organized the effort on line of effort number three; and the Chairman in the Joint Chiefs and the Service Secretary did yeoman's work, great work, on making the military more ready, more lethal.
But around the world, we're seen as a great power. We're seen as this example of a government of the people, by the people, for the people that works. And so, when we are seen as a reliable security friend, they get their bravery up, they get their courage up. They think they can stand up for the values that you and I in this room prize so greatly.
And it's important that we be seen in that light, because we're stronger together. We need our sister democracies, we have since our revolution. And I got the privilege to fight many times for our country. And I never fought in an all-American formation.
When we came in, one of the first issues we had to deal with is the precise one that you're talking about, here: lethal aid for Ukraine. And we came in and you never get a blank board. You have to pick up the ball and run with it from wherever the previous administration had it.
The Secretaries of Defense and State in the previous administration wanted to provide lethal aid to the Ukraine; the White House did not. We made the decision early on that we were going to provide it. That decision was made in the White House and we provided the javelin weapons which would temper any Russian's desire to be in a tank and attack the Ukrainians in the future. Part of this is, again, trying to set stability so diplomats can resolve problems.
I don't know about this specific delay. There are times when we have delayed for very legitimate reasons sending things that had been agreed upon because something has come up. We would keep Congress informed of that when it happened. I can't comment on the specifics here, because I don't know more than what you've reported. I do not spend time in this town. I don't get energy from wherever you guys get your energy in this town.
MR. IGNATIUS: Come, now.
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah, but I would just say that it happens sometimes but I'm not going to comment on the legitimacy of how this happened, because I don't have the facts blow-by-blow. I've heard a lot of conflicting reports, but I don't have the inside scoop of it.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, the theme of keeping faith with our allies comes through your book. Certainly, that was at the center of your decision to resign--
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah.
MR. IGNATIUS: --as Secretary of Defense. I'm just going to quote the signature line of your resignation letter, "My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors is strongly held. You have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects," you wrote.
Put Ukraine in the--take what you said and put that aside, but I do want to ask you about Syria, because Syria was the issue as you were drafting that letter that I know was most on your mind.
You and I have talked often about Syria. I've been lucky enough as a journalist to travel often with our special forces there and to see that partnership with the Syrian Kurds on the ground.
And I just want to ask you the simplest question: If we walk away from an ally like the SDF, the Syrian-Kurdish-led militia that lost, by their count, about 11,000 dead and about 23,000 wounded. If we, in effect, walk away from them when they're threatened by an adversary, as they were by Turkey, the hard question is why anybody would ever believe us again when we propose to be their allies if we're that unreliable.
I just want to ask you to reflect on that, because I know you thought deeply about this issue. It was in your mind when you wrote that letter.
GENERAL MATTIS: It's a legitimate question. Again, that was the specific policy that I disagreed with and it was on principle.
I believe, as Condoleezza Rice taught us when were younger, that you do things with your allies, not to them. And I'd just come out of a meeting in Ottawa where 16 nations, instead of Brett McGurk and I sitting there with the 16 nations contributing forces to the counter-ISIS fight, I thought we were going to have to argue about staying with the fight. This was about a week before the tweet that caused me to go over and see the President. They said, "We're with you." We didn't have to convince them. They said, "We know we've got to stay with this."
I think it was looked upon with a lot of alarm by many allies. But again, now, with some confused messaging, we still have troops there on the ground. They're capable of defending themselves, they're capable of fighting, and that statement continues, despite some rather, like I said, confused messaging.
But I think, too, that the world has seen us before--think about when Walter Lippmann was giving that talk to his class reunion there in 1940. The Germans have occupied Paris, they're bombing London, and he's talking about, "There's no more free lunch," basically. For every freedom you want, you have a duty to perform. It's a great speech. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.
And I think that what we've got to look at is, at that point, America was seen as they couldn't be counted on. And the British Prime Minister tells his people, "Hang in there. Keep fighting. Once the Americans have exhausted all possible alternatives, they'll do the right thing."
GENERAL MATTIS: And I would just suggest to you that our military relations in many cases are stronger today than they were three years ago. Now, that's going to seem counterintuitive to you, but in fact it's true, according to those countries' views. That's their assessment, not mine, and that is not just in some countries in Europe, but also some in the Pacific and some here in the Americas.
So, underneath the political rhetoric, our institutions, diplomats primarily, but certainly our military, too, trying to keep the glue together. And at the same time, while the President is an unusual president, much of his themes about allies paying more go back to the 1970s. Senator Mansfield introducing--I believe it was him--legislation to remove half our troops from Europe if the Europeans don't pay more.
I've sat in the room at NATO as the Supreme Allied Commander, and heard as representatives of the Bush administration, the Obama administration, say, "You must pay more."
And finally, I had to go there and say, "You cannot expect the American parents to care more about your children's freedom than you care. You've got to step up. It's now manifested politically in America this dissatisfaction."
So, there are ways we can meet each other halfway. But ultimately, when America gives its word, whether it be to Assad not to use chemical weapons or on any other issue, we're going to have to live up to our word. You don't make false promises or threats, and I firmly believe this. And that, as you know, I don't need to say much more than what I put in my page-and-a-half letter of resignation.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, let me ask you about a particular question of dealing with allies which may seem like it's coming out of left field, but actually is going to be very much center stage soon, and that is our alliance with South Korea.
We are heading back, I think, soon, toward a period of greater testing on the Korean Peninsula. And one obvious question is whether we need to resume our military exercises with South Korea, which we have generally been holding back on to try to maintain an atmosphere of dialogue with Kim Jong-un.
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah.
MR. IGNATIUS: Is it time to get back to training with our ally?
GENERAL MATTIS: Well, we never ceased training. What we did was we moved much of it to computer simulation instead of actually moving troops on and off the peninsula--
MR. IGNATIUS: I should say "actual exercises."
GENERAL MATTIS: "Actual exercises," yes. I think that, to put it in a sports analogy, it's one thing to watch the game films and to have chalk talks on the board, but you got to go out and scrimmage. And none of us would expect our favorite football team, college or pro, to not practice before a game. I mean, we'd say, "Are you nuts?" You know, you'd find a new coach real fast. You know, the owner would say, "Thank you, you're out of here."
And so, I think what we have to do is recognize that an army that sits in the barracks or a military that does not exercise is not at the top of its game.
But at the same time, militaries are in support of our foreign policy. Hopefully, our diplomat, during the lead there--although I was concerned we'd militarized our foreign policy over the past 25 years. When I went to this job and had a very good relationship with Secretary Tillerson and then Secretary Pompeo, as I gave them the military factors and we settled things between us before we walked into the White House to make sure diplomats were in front.
And in this case, I think that reducing the scope of the exercise is what really happened here--David, is probably an appropriate--as we were given every opportunity to try to solve this diplomatically. It's critical that we exhaust every opportunity diplomatically with this very problematic leader that we have to deal with in North Korea, in the interest of peace.
As Churchill, again--I quote him a lot. He's got good lines. He said, "Oh, it's better to do jaw-jaw than war-war." But there does come a point where we would have to recalibrate that if, in fact, diplomatic efforts are rebuffed and there's more testing or something.
I don't want to speculate on what's going to happen. I'm still--maybe it's--you know, ladies and gentlemen, and going back to your first question about Afghanistan, the military is brought up to be "can-do," because it deals with such grim circumstances. It scrapes the veneer of civilization off you, that if you don't go in with that attitude, whether it be Afghanistan or to try to support peace on the peninsula by cutting back on exercises but still keep the troops ready, and how do we do that.
It's a can-do organization because the alternative is just horrible, to tell you the truth. I mean, you deal with--you basically deal with tragedy piled on tragedy, and so you've got to try to keep the peace. You just have to try.
And the skeptics, the cynics--and I don't mean to say everybody's a cynic--the skeptics always sound like they've got the wiser word. It's easier to be critical and sound very smart than to try to keep the faith with something that might not work and just keep working at it. But that's what you're required to do when you're in a position of leadership dealing with matters that grave. And I think right now we've just got to try to keep the diplomatic effort online, and keep as many allies with us. As the Marines say, "If you're going into a fight, bring all your friends with guns."
You know, if you're going into a diplomatic situation, bring all the diplomats that you can amass with you. So, keep bringing the people.
MR. IGNATIUS: Bring all the journalists, too.
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah, I got to think about that.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, to ask you about one other key area of potential military confrontation we have been watching this year, that is Iran, where we are at close quarters in the Persian Gulf--
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah.
MR. IGNATIUS: --with the Iranians. And what's been striking, looking at that conflict, is that the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have behaved with great restraint.
And when I've traveled in the Region with your CENTCOM successor, General Frank McKenzie, I've heard over and over from General McKenzie the importance of not taking the bait, of avoiding unnecessary direct military confrontation with Iran.
But some would argue that, as a result, we've kind of let deterrents slip, that the Iranians think that they can go ahead and attack the Saudi refinery at Abqaiq and knock out half of Saudi oil production and nobody did anything. There was no reprisal that was visible.
So, I want to ask you to help us thread that needle in thinking about the Gulf. Do you think our policy generally of restraint has, in this case, been wise? But where do we need to show some teeth to make sure that the Iranians don't take advantage?
GENERAL MATTIS: Yeah, I mean, we're up against a revolutionary regime, here. And the people that we have access to do not have the power to make decisions. The people who have power to make decisions, we don't have access to.
So, first of all, understand that the diplomats are not lazy. It's not that people aren't trying to resolve this diplomatically. It's just they are set up to make it difficult. And this is a regime that doesn't care about the best interests of their own people. They're killing their own people in the streets right now as we sit here. Our problem is not the Iranian people; it's this regime.
And so, to avoid taking the bait, I think, is important; however, I don't dismiss your concern at all, David. I think Leon Panetta wrote in his book about when I was the Commander of CENTCOM and they sent a--it was a Su-25 Frogfoot, so we're pretty sure it was an IRGC aircraft, went up and made three runs on a drone trying to shoot it out of the air. I didn't like that very much, and it says something about their accuracy that they missed all three times, against a drone that's flying, you know, steady.
GENERAL MATTIS: But I talked to Secretary Panetta and he agreed with me. It took us a little bit to get this through the White House because then, too, they were trying to keep it in the diplomatic lane. But eventually, we put the drone up about ten days later and had two Navy F/A-18s flying alongside it, and the Iranians decided not to come up and be brave that day, which is probably wise for their pilots' retirement program.
But my point is that when they take one of our aircraft out of the air, I think it's got to be met with some sort of retaliation. The problem is, it's easy for me to say that on the outside. Remember, once you enter into this, you're entering into a fundamentally unpredictable phenomenon. It is war, or a war-like act. And you may not want to call it war or a war-like act, but it is.
So, you always get a little more tempered as you get closer to the responsibility for the day after. So, right now, I'd rather not comment on the specifics here, other than to say we are up against a regime that tried to murder an ambassador here in this town, and I've seen the intelligence, less than two miles of where we're sitting right now. And I've seen the intelligence. It was not a rogue operator. It was approved at the highest levels, and the previous administration basically did nothing about it. They locked the courier up and we caught them red-handed at it, and we locked him up.
But this was approved at the highest levels, and when someone would try to do an act like--ambassadors are men and women of peace. And to try to murder one, especially with a car bomb--we'd be having a very different discussion here today had they been successful. And but for one fundamental mistake, they could have pulled it off. But the bottom line is that's the kind of regime that we're up against and I would just defer to those in the positions of responsibility right now that they're handling it probably about as well as they can. But at the same time, this is going to a problem, is the bottom line.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me conclude which something that you told our colleague and friend at The Atlantic, Jeff Goldberg, in a conversation with him about your book. And you told Jeff that you believed in what you call "the duty of silence," that, "When you leave an administration"--I'm quoting you--"over clear policy differences, you need to give people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country."
So, there are a lot of issues on which you have held back. And we keep banging on you say more, and you refer to the duty of silence.
So, I want to ask you one question about this: Will your duty of silence expire--and I mean this--before election day 2020? We've got something big coming up and we need wise people to help us think about them.
So, I think a lot of people would say, whatever that duty is, it ought to have an expiration date, and it ought to come up at the time we have to make big choices.
GENERAL MATTIS: Even here today, ladies and gentlemen, I've been candid about my view on policies, on dealing with allies. It's not that I'm silent about where I stand.
But I think that when you join an administration--and I come from the background of it's a privilege, it's an honor to work for the country, to serve the country. That's the way I was brought up. Politics be damned, the bottom line is I'd never met President-Elect Trump before the day he interviewed me, took no part in the election. But Republican or Democrat, if you're asked to do something by the President--male, female, Republican, Democrat--as long as you're prepared, as long as you can do the job, then you roll up your sleeves and go to work and give it your best shot.
I meant to be there four years. There came a point where I had to leave. At that point, what--the French call it a "devoir de reserve" [phonetic] is where I'd found it in reading years ago. And I'd been told by a former Secretary of State when I left for Washington, "Remember to do your job well. You can't want it too much."
So, I laid out in a letter where I disagreed. And now, there's a successor to me in position and you--I don't know whether you like or dislike President Trump, but we only have one president at a time. And having been a part of that administration, I feel duty-bound, knowing the dangers that our country faces, not to distract the young sailors at sea right now, out in the Pacific or the North Arabian Sea; not to distract the soldiers in Syria or the ones up in the Hindu Kush; the airman flying top cover for them. I don't want to distract these people, with the former Secretary of Defense coming out and making political assessments that every one of you can make.
I don't have anything--I don't have some secret sauce I can reveal to you to say, "Here's the solution to our problem." I've talked about our problem: It's the way we refer to one another; it's the way we deal with one another. And not one person is responsible for this. There is no one person who is going to solve it, either.
We're going to have to work together. I'll do what I can. I write candidly in, like you said, The Atlantic. I put words in my book about alliances and respect, and I think that's where I stand. That's what's important to me. I don't have anything so revelatory that I'm going to change anyone's mind, I don't think, right now. So, I'll probably keep my duty of silence about political things, but continue to speak out on strategy and policy.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, one question to go out on: You have served American Presidents for nearly 50 years in your career. So, let me just ask you the simplest question I can.
GENERAL MATTIS: This is going to be hard, you watch.
MR. IGNATIUS: No. In your experience, what does good leadership at that highest level look like? What's the thing we should want?
GENERAL MATTIS: Someone who is steeped in history and is a good listener and understands how you build a sense of common cause. You can build teams and bring people together.
You've got to be able to listen. You've got to be informed enough what questions to ask, that history can give you to ask about similar situations.
For example, if you read what Mannerheim did up in Finland twice to bring his country back together after very--the worst kind of times, twice, over 20-some years he had to bring his country back.
If you study what Mandela did and look at how they brought--they reconciled people, there's a lot to be said from studying that history. But then, you have to know actually how you bring people together. And there are techniques that can be studied and examples to be followed. Again, there's nothing original in that book. It was just my ability to integrate it in my own way that I wanted to pass on to younger folks.
You get dark-colored hair," David, and we've either made it or we haven't. Now, you want to pass down to the young men and women, "Here's what worked for me and here's the mistakes I made," and just be honest about it.
And I think if you listen better--if I could have listened better at times and if I could have perhaps done a little more study of history, I might have found that I was able to put those teams together better.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, folks, as they say at sporting events, let us put it together for a rare person, Secretary of Defense Mattis.
GENERAL MATTIS: Thank you, David. Thanks so much. Thank you.
[End recorded session]