Gen. James Mattis Shares Perspectives on World Affairs at Bellevue University Signature Event
Gen. James N. Mattis (USMC, Ret.) credited Bellevue University’s required undergraduate Kirkpatrick Signature Series courses for bringing him to Omaha to keynote the University’s 13th annual Signature Event speaker program October 3 at the Holland Center for the Performing Arts. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense provided an audience of 700-plus, including alumni, community leaders and others, with insightful views on the military, international relations, America’s role of global leadership, and the vital role of civics education programs like the Signature Series. Excerpts follow from his conversation with moderator Mike Cassling, an Omaha business leader and former University Board Chair.
A SERVICE CAREER
Mattis, 72, a Richland, Washington, native, was 18 when he took the oath to defend the Constitution as a U.S. Marine in 1969, during the Vietnam War when the military draft was in effect. “I just went in to do my two years. At the time, the Constitution was just something I swore to defend,” he said. “I probably would not have joined of my own free will, but my parents were from the Greatest Generation (World War II).” Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant after college, he rose to the Marines’ highest rank, four-star General, at one point commanding all American forces in the Middle East, retiring in 2013. He was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Defense in 2017, and served two years during the Trump presidency.
In 1976, the Bicentennial of America’s Declaration of Independence from British rule, Mattis’s commanding officer gave him a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution. “I fell in love with the Constitution,” he recalled. “Every year since, I have read it, and having traveled the world, it has sunken into me how doggone lucky we are that we had the founding fathers we did!” Signature Event attendees were able to take home a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution as they departed the event at the Holland Center.
THE MILITARY’S MISSION
“Tactics and weapons change in the military all the time, but the mission remains very singular, that is, to defend the Constitution…The concern that I have today is that the polarization of American society can seep into the military ranks.” Mattis cited a brief telegram President Abraham Lincoln sent to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant in February 1865, when the Civil War was still raging. “‘Let nothing which is transpiring delay, interrupt or distract from your military plans and operations.’ In other words, ‘Military, you just protect the Republic. Don’t get involved in the political side of it.’ Politics in the media also is concerning, he said. “The television news shows now seem to be telling the audience to distrust the other half of America.”
SPACE, CYBERSPACE, AND BEYOND
Warfare continues to evolve, according to Mattis. “I think we recognize there’s a new domain for the military, and that’s Cyber (Cybersecurity). Today the military’s mission is to defend the country against external threats, including space and cyberspace and technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and propaganda, as well as (threats from) land, sea and air.”
CHINA AND TAIWAN
Practical, diplomacy sometimes can get results formal talks cannot, Mattis said, citing nuclear disarmament agreements between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War in the 1980s that resulted in a 75% reduction in nuclear weapons using a philosophy called ‘Trust, but verify.’ “I don’t think we have any of those practical philosophical discussions going on between Washington and Beijing now. We need to have those.” He said Allied efforts will be paramount in protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty from a Chinese takeover. “The ‘one-China, two-systems’ approach for Hong Kong and Taiwan specifies peaceful resolution of issues. We never said that the 23 million people living on Taiwan could be forcibly invaded along the lines of what Putin has done in Ukraine.”
“We need NATO now, more than ever, if we want to keep peace in the world.”
Under the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has resumed nuclear weapons and missile testing, despite western economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts to discourage them. “With North Korea, you have an unaccountable, mercurial leader who literally cares not a whit for his own people. So we are going to have to align allies and economic motives and try to get China on board. That’s another reason why we need philosophical discussions with China,” Mattis said.
China is also a problem with Iran, where there are demonstrations against the theocratic regime, with beatings of young people in the streets, threats of death to Israel and the United States, and suppression of women’s rights. “Our problem is not with the people (of Iran), it’s with the regime.” Diplomatic efforts, like the successful Abraham Accords to normalize relations between Israel and some Middle Eastern nations, are helping to bring peace to the region, he said.
RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
“I think what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants to do, strategically, is restore the ‘Russian Core,’—Russia, Belarus and Ukraine—and break up NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the European Union (EU) and the United States’ link to the EU. Unfortunately, he didn’t read the Ukrainian peoples’ minds, thinking he was going to be welcomed there. They (Ukrainians) want nothing to do with it.” Mattis favors Ukrainian conventional weapons at whatever level needed to stop Russia but not nuclear or chemical weapons. “I think we can no longer sit here and watch murders go on. If we can hold them (allies) together through the coming winter, Putin is going to be in a very difficult spot.”
NATO AND THE EU
“Thank goodness for NATO. It is absolutely critical to defending American security. They (NATO member nations) have got to pay more, but don’t lose sight of the fact that we need NATO now, more than ever, if we want to keep peace in the world,” Mattis said, adding that a strong EU also is essential.
AMERICA, A REPOSITORY OF HOPE
Calling America “a repository of hope,” which requires deposits, as well as withdrawals, Mattis said he accepts only five percent of the public speaking invitations he receives. He came to Omaha because of Bellevue University’s Kirkpatrick Signature Series courses, which explore foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and encourage civic service and engagement. The General concluded with the story of a soon-to-be-imprisoned Iraqi resistance fighter captured while planting an improvised explosive device (IED). The young man asked him, “Do you think that if I am a model prisoner, someday my family and I can come to America?”