Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis warned the next U.S. president against engaging in isolationism, explaining that maintaining a role in the chaotic Middle East is the only way to fight terrorism.
The Middle East is currently “experiencing the most turmoil since the end of the Ottoman Empire — that’s the World War I time frame — and it’s getting worse,” said the 40-year Marine Corps veteran, while speaking at Washington State University Tuesday. “At the same time, U.S. influence in the region is at its lowest ebb in 40 years.”
Mattis said that while military experience isn’t necessarily required for the presidency, it is crucial that whoever occupies the White House is able to resist America’s “always present appetite for isolationism.”
If anyone is familiar with the Middle East’s problems, it is Mattis. The retired general spent 40 years in the Marines, much of that in the Middle East itself. Mattis’s hardened, yet sober, view on the region would eventually earn him the top job at U.S. Central Command.
Mattis had significant political support to make a run for the White House earlier this year, but confirmed in April he would not be seeking the office. That said, he has not been coy in offering his opinion on what the next president should do abroad.
Mattis offered the example of World War II to back his point. He noted that Americans watched Germany overrun France and bomb Britain, while Japan invaded China, yet they felt it was not a U.S. problem.
“The result was we were attacked [at Pearl Harbor],” said Mattis. “Then, like it or not, they had to get engaged.”
The general said winning the war was not the end of America’s role, pointing to the Marshall Plan and creation of the United Nations, which helped repair the diplomatic relations and broken economies of both allies and former enemies.
“That had never been done before,” Mattis said. “We created the Marshall Plan, three years after Nazis were burning Jews. We offered them locomotives, rail lines, anything to help get their economies going again. That’s the greatest generation. The point is, it’s more than just fighting battles.”
Like Europe in World War II, Mattis explained that issues in the Middle East cannot simply be “contained in the Middle East.”
“We know that intellectually, but there’s a tendency to want to put a pillow over our heads.”
Diplomacy is the solution to long term problems, said Mattis, including education and economic tools. He said that his role as the head of U.S. military operations in the Middle East was to keep the peace until these tools could solve problems.
Despite advocating for continued engagement, Mattis also warned against trying to go to far in enforcing U.S. traditions on the Middle East.
“The idea that we can just implant our form of government — it doesn’t work that way. Make your problems my problems — that’s how you build allies.”
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