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Jim Mattis: 'Nations With Allies Thrive, Nations Without Allies Wither'

James Mattis served as defense secretary for nearly two years under President Trump before resigning at the end of last year.
Celeste Sloman for NPR
James Mattis served as defense secretary for nearly two years under President Trump before resigning at the end of last year.

When former defense secretary Jim Mattis is asked about his relationship with President Trump, he has an answer ready.

"I don't discuss sitting presidents," Mattis tells NPR in an interview. "I believe that you owe a period of quiet."

But Mattis is expansive on what he describes as "misaligned" U.S. strategy in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The shifting policies and goals of successive administrations have contributed to the long, frustrating conflicts in the region, says Mattis, who is speaking out with the release of his book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.

"Sometimes we've gone in in order to stop terrorist attacks on America, and then we've shifted to 'We're going to bring democracy' and more or less impose democracy on certain countries that may or may not have all of the underpinnings necessary to be successful," he says.

Mattis spent four decades in the Marines. He served as a commander in Afghanistan shortly after the al-Qaida attacks in 2001. He was the head of Central Command, overseeing the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under President Obama. And he served as defense secretary for nearly two years under President Trump before resigning at the end of last year.

Defining goals

"What you have got to do is figure out what it is you intend to do at the outset [of a war] and then hold firm to that and don't half-step it," Mattis says. "I think that we have had serious policy challenges in figuring out exactly what it is we intend to do and then holding firm to that vision."

His criticism was directed broadly at U.S. warfighting over the past two decades. However, he left the Trump administration after the president declared that he wanted to pull U.S. forces out of Syria.

Those U.S. troops helped drive the Islamic State out of the territory it once held, but Mattis and other military leaders have indicated they would like to keep at least a small force in Syria — which remains the case so far.

Speaking about the U.S. wars in general, Mattis says:

"You may want a war over. You may declare it over. You may even try to walk away from it. But the bottom line is the enemy gets a vote, as we say in the military, and we simply have got to understand that terrorism is going to be an ambient threat. We're going to have to work with allies against ISIS and we're going to have to keep up the fight. I'd like to have a more positive message. But the fact is that's a reality we're going to face for our time."

Mattis also stressed the need for the U.S. to work closely with allies.

"Throughout history, we see nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither," he says.

Support of allies

Mattis notes that when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2001, Americans forces were joined by those from eight allied nations.

"They were alongside us because they shared the values, the sense that terrorism was a threat to everyone," Mattis says. "So when you go into these kind of situations, you need every ally you can get your hands on. You need all of them. You need their votes in the United Nations. You need their troops on the ground."

Trump has often criticized U.S. allies, and NATO in particular, saying that those countries are relying too heavily on the U.S. for their security.

Mattis says that when he was a senior military commander, "I didn't expect to be obeyed, but I expected to be heard. I think we have gotten into a position where our policies and our strategies have been misaligned to the problems, and part of the reason is we don't have a sufficiently strategic approach."

He says his remarks are not a "criticism of any one policy or any one leader," adding, "I bear no rancor."

The former defense secretary says he began writing the book with co-author Bing West in 2013, shortly after retiring from the Marines. Much of the book describes leadership lessons Mattis learned in the Marines and hopes to pass on. The manuscript was almost finished when Trump asked Mattis to become defense secretary, and the book includes relatively little about his time in the administration.

However, it does have the resignation letter Mattis delivered to Trump on Dec. 20 of last year. It reads in part: "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."

The breaking point was Trump's call to pull out of Syria, but it followed other policy disagreements, many of which appeared to be around the treatment of U.S. allies.

Disagreements on war policy

In the book, Mattis does detail some of his disagreements he had with the Bush and Obama administration.

In Chapter 15, entitled "Snatching Defeat From The Jaws of Victory," Mattis goes on at length about his advice that the U.S. should have kept at least a small force in Iraq rather than pull out completely in 2011. Mattis was then head of Central Command, overseeing the U.S. war efforts in Iraq.

However, "beginning with President Bush and continuing through the Obama administration, the White House was set on a total troop withdrawal, for political reasons," Mattis writes. "I argued strongly that any vacuum left in our wake would be filled by Sunni terrorists and Iran."

Mattis also recounts a meeting in Iraq with then-Vice President Joe Biden in the run-up to the U.S. withdrawal.

"He wanted our forces out of Iraq," Mattis writes. "Whatever path led there fastest, he favored. He exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly."

After the U.S. withdrew at the end of 2011, the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group, seized a large part of western and northern Iraq. President Obama reluctantly sent forces back to Iraq in 2014.

"All this was predicted — and preventable," Mattis adds.

Mattis tells a similar story about Afghanistan — where the U.S. has been negotiating with the Taliban on an American withdrawal.

President Obama said in 2011 that he would draw down troops in Afghanistan (in addition to the complete withdrawal in Iraq).

"I had been assigned two contradictory objectives," Mattis writes. "The forces under my command at CENTCOM were to degrade the Taliban while building up the Afghan army. They were also to withdraw on a strict timetable, independent of circumstances on the ground. We could do one or the other, but not both."

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.