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Gen. James Mattis: History shows the importance of alliances, and how the wars in Ukraine and Gaza Strip must end

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis is interviewed on March 12 at a small home in Richland, where he has an office and greets visitors. Mattis grew up in Richland, where his father worked at Hanford. Now 73, the former Secretary of Defense has stepped back from much public life but will receive the first major award from the Foley Center at an upcoming program.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokesman-Review

The Spokesman-Review

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will be the inaugural recipient of the Thomas S. Foley Award for Distinguished Public Service. Mattis will be honored by Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service on April 9 during a ceremony at the John Hemmingson Center at Gonzaga University.

Leading up to that event, The Spokesman-Review sat down with Mattis earlier this month for an in-depth conversation in which the Pullman native discussed a wide range of topics, including current world conflicts and the expansion of NATO.

This is the second of three excerpts from that interview. The transcript below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What the NATO expansion signals

One of the aphorisms of history – the one thing that is always true in history, when there aren’t many that are always true – is that nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither. This leads to a story about the time I was sitting in the backyard of the Australian ambassador to the United States.

I was there because I was a supreme allied commander for NATO, and he was going to offer to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight in the war there. He told me that Americans made the most self-sacrificial pledge in world history after World War II. I’m sitting there thinking, “I better know as much about American history as this Australian.” He asked me if I could guess what it was. I said, “Well, we set up the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt goes to San Francisco and signs the treaty with more than 40 nations.” By the way, one was an independent nation by the name of Ukraine.

He said that wasn’t it. He told me that was just a way to try to solve some of the world’s problems, but was never meant to solve them all – and the war had driven us to it.

I told him he must be talking about Bretton Woods, where we came up with things like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank lenders, so that when people or a nation are running out of any kind of hope, they don’t have to turn to a fascist named Mussolini in order to keep the trains running on time.

He said that wasn’t it, either. Yes, they can turn to the World Bank to get a loan in order to start creating wealth so their children have a better future, and don’t have to go to any sort of lenders of last resort. He said that when this happened, our nation became the world’s reserve currency, so our nation benefited from that as much as we put into it. He said that the nations we helped became our best trading partners, making our country a lot of money and becoming the richest country on earth as a result.

So I’m looking at him and said, “Oh, it’s the Marshall Plan, where we helped our former enemies.” Think of what the Nazis had done to the Jews, think of what the Japanese did to our prisoners, or what Mussolini had done – yet three years after that war is over, we were offering them money to restart their economies. I knew that was really more about an enlightened self-interest, and he reminded me of that, as well, telling me that wasn’t it, either.

Well, what was it?

He said it was NATO.

He said that after World War II, our nation could have looked at Europe and said. “That’s twice in 30 years that you drew us into your silly wars and that it cost us hundreds of thousands of our boys’ lives.” He said we could have handled Japan on our own after Pearl Harbor and that be the end of it. He said our nation had every reason to feel those ways, but instead we said, “General Eisenhower, put your uniform back on.” You told a retired general to give up being president of Columbia University, and that he was going to go stand up NATO. And the Americans pledged 100 million dead Americans in a nuclear war to protect democracy in Western Europe.

Isn’t it interesting that it took a foreigner to teach me that lesson? The irony is that it was all designed to keep the Soviet army out of Western Europe – no farther than East Germany, no farther than Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, the countries Russia refused to let loose.

He then said the only time that NATO has gone to war was after 9/11, when New York City was attacked. The greatest generation set this organization up to protect Europe, but nations with allies thrive when attacked, so suddenly there were our NATO allies with us. And because our NATO allies were there, another dozen or two countries joined in, which again showed the value of alliances.

Those alliances are more important today than ever.

Ukraine-Russia War

Finland last joined a military alliance before World War II. Sweden last joined a military alliance back in Napoleon’s time. Both countries stayed neutral through the Cold War, because they wanted to keep sovereign decisions. But today, even in Sweden’s case – after 200 years of neutrality – neutrality won’t work against Putin. So now, they’ve joined NATO.

Why? Because Putin knows that you don’t try to take on NATO. That is the way these two democracies, Finland and Sweden, have proven that alliances are more important than ever.

It has been appalling to see what I would call the “Putin caucus” in Congress stop the aid that Ukraine needs. Ukraine has never asked for us to come fight for their war, even though they are right now the shield of Europe. All they want is the ammunition to defend themselves and their very nascent democracy, so they can have freedom.

What we have to recognize is that Russia should have won that war in the first six weeks. If the Ukrainians weren’t committed 100% to defending their country, then they don’t throw the Russian army back in the first year. They basically have now cut out a third of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea.

We need to get them anti-aircraft weaponry so they can stop the constant bombing and murdering of their citizens. Then we need to reinforce them enough so that Russia realizes they will not break through and that they will never be able to win. At that point, perhaps the diplomats can find a way out, once we get beyond Putin.

But right now, the most important thing is to stand with Ukraine, because if we do not, the arrogant bullies of the world – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea – are all watching this, and if the West can’t stand up for its own interests here, it is going to fuel the interests in Beijing or in Pyongyang and Tehran for more murderous mischief. Right now, if the Ukrainians can hold the line, that is stronger than any diplomatic demarche or letter that we can send.

Israel-Hamas War

This is a horrible situation. Israel was set up so that Jews would have a safe place, and since the Holocaust of World War II, they have never had to endure the sort of slaughter that they witnessed and experienced on Oct. 7.

The important thing is to recognize we need a way out of this, and we absolutely have to do everything possible for the innocent people caught up in this war who Hamas purposely jeopardized. These are the people of Gaza, and Hamas knew exactly what they were doing by fighting among innocent people, and falling back into residential neighborhoods when they were revealed they couldn’t hold those Israeli kibbutz they raided, and then had to fall back.

Hamas could have very easily said they were going to evacuate all the people out of this one area, and then we will fight it out with you, Israel – but these guys are the worst excuses for men that I have ever heard of or ever fought. The terrorists there have purposely kept the women and children right there amongst all of the fighting areas.

We have to find a way to protect the women and children, and help them in a humanitarian way. At the same time, Israel must ensure that Hamas has no role in the future of Gaza. Then we have to come up with a two-state solution process, and that process is likely going to be at least 10 or 15 years in the making.

But right now, it is not going to work if you don’t have the West Bank, and you don’t have Gaza secure. People have to feel safe so they can start creating some kind of an economy.

There is hope that this could work. We actually did this in the West Bank when we had a U.S. Army three-star general there for years, building up the Palestinian security force. At first, the Israeli military wanted no part of this. They thought it was a horrible idea. But after years, they grudgingly, and then gratefully, started working with the Palestinian security force that Gen. Keith Dayton helped build.

Gen. Dayton eventually ended up retiring here in the state of Washington.

What he had put together at that time was an example of how this can go forward, because once you establish security with the Arab nations’ help, then you have a chance for an economy to grow. With that, you then have a chance to create a Palestinian state that is not a threat to Israel, so that never again will something like Oct. 7 happen in the one place that Jews finally felt safe.

So, that’s the way I look at it: Establish security, take care of the women and children, get the innocent off the battlefield. Do not give Hamas any leg to stand on in the future. Start the process – the long, trust-building process – to create a second state there, a two-state solution.

I can see all the challenges with this, but I also cannot see any alternative.