Carnegie Mellon University

NCTC simulation IPS

May 01, 2020

“You need to talk to people that have been there": James Mattis makes virtual class visit

By Bill Brink

On the Saturday morning after he was sworn in as Secretary of Defense, James Mattis arrived at the Pentagon. The retired Marine four-star general met with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, and the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

“For thirty days, I asked for the strategy and I didn’t get it,” Mattis told them. “I went through a meeting with fifty-one Senators and then I went through a hearing. Fortunately, they didn’t ask me about it. I’m now the boss. I need the strategy. I’ve got two letters to next of kin that are waiting for my signature saying their son’s not coming home. I need to know what they’re dying for.”

The Chairman looked Mattis in the eye and said, “We don’t have one.”

When Mattis went home that night to his rented house in Washington, DC, he threw his luggage in a corner unopened, found a yellow legal pad, and started writing. That became the basis for the 2018 National Defense Strategy, a policy which Mattis outlined to students in Institute for Politics and Strategy Director and Taube Professor Kiron Skinner’s “America and the World” class this week.

Mattis spent about an hour speaking with the students and answering their questions via Zoom. He called them by name, drew from his military service and extensive reading of history when answering their questions, and provided valuable insight to a class that offers real-world instruction in foreign policy through the study of original source materials.

“There’s really no way to completely learn this from a book,” Mattis said. “You need to talk to people that have been there.”

Dr. Martial Hebert, the Dean of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, attended Mattis' virtual lecture.

"We have a joint program with Professor Skinner in the area of AI, in the area of cybersecurity, which allows us to link together the expertise in technology, the expertise in computer science, with the expertise in political science, decision science, social science, etc.," Dr. Hebert told Mattis. 

Mattis brought more than four decades of experience to the position of Secretary of Defense, which he held from January 2017 until December 2018. He led an infantry battalion in Iraq in 1991, and an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan in 2001, before eventually commanding all Marine forces in the Middle East. He later ran US Central Command (CENTCOM), which governs all American forces in the Middle East, and directed NATO’s Supreme Allied Command for Transformation.

His research on NATO – he read 22 books on the organization prior to assuming command – informed his process on the National Defense Strategy. After consultation with Congressmen, NATO allies, think tanks, and others, Mattis produced a three-part plan. The US needed to increase the lethality of its military forces. It also needed more allies and stronger alliances. Finally, the Department of Defense needed to gain the trust of Congress and the American people regarding its spending.

“We are going to make the world safe for democracy,” he said.

To do so, the Department of Defense would support the Department of State, which needed to drive foreign policy. In late December 2016, after President Donald Trump had won the election but before he or his Cabinet had taken office, Mattis heard that Rex Tillerson, the nominee for Secretary of State, was in Washington, DC. Mattis called three hotels until he found Tillerson, and invited him to dinner. For too long, Mattis told Tillerson, State and Defense did not work together.

“I’ve had lance corporals catch RPGs in the chest because we didn’t have our policy and our strategy together,” he said. Not on his watch; if they were confirmed, he told Tillerson, they would meet every week so that when they walked into the White House, they were in alignment.

Tillerson reached across the table and shook his hand.

The alignment of the Departments of State and Defense augments Mattis’ strategy of creating and strengthening alliances. In answering a student’s question about whether alliances expanded or reduced America’s use of force, Mattis cited NATO. Following World War II, America could have dismissed Europe after fighting in two wars in twenty-five years an ocean away from home, he said, but it didn’t; instead, it gambled to protect democracy in Europe. Mattis pointed to the result: The only time NATO went to war, he said, was after the September 11th attacks.

To illustrate the importance of alliances, Mattis identified one that could be stronger: the potential coalition of nations that could hold Iran accountable for its actions.

“This [Iran] is a country that attempted to murder the ambassador of Saudi Arabia two miles from the White House with a truck bomb,” Mattis said. “But for one fundamental mistake, they’d have pulled it off. We caught them red-handed, and the Obama administration did nothing about it. That set the conditions at that point for a higher-stakes poker game.”

In 2010, when Mattis ran CENTCOM, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were coordinating the night before they were to speak at a dinner.

“By the way, General,” Clinton said, “I’m going to force [Iran] to the negotiating table on the nuclear threat.”

No way, Mattis thought, but Clinton was right. The problem was, she left office before the negotiations were completed; Mattis said she would never have allowed the subsequent concessions made on ballistic missiles, the cyber threat, maritime security, and terrorism.

“Now what you have is, you have people who have expanded Iran into a strategic-level threat when in fact they’re not,” he said.

Mattis is as well-read in military history as they come. He speaks in quotes: Kennan, Shultz, Churchill, Kissinger. It’s no surprise, then, that when asked for advice on rebuilding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Washington University History major recommended studying all that had come before.

“It won’t give you the answers, but what it will do is tell you what questions to ask when confronting similar problems,” he said. He also recommended that students emerge from physical distancing with an increased awareness of what they want do in life.

“Make sure you’ve got a way to come out physically better,” Mattis said. “Mentally, perhaps go and study something you mean to study but you haven’t had time. And stay connected to whatever your source of spiritual strength is.”

Mattis’ presentation impressed the students. One student commented following the talk, “You can see how he got where he was."