“We had policy disagreements,” said former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on why he left the Trump administration in December 2018 after about two years of service. Beyond that, Mattis, a four-star general, Marine Corps veteran of 40 years and former head of U.S. Central Command, said he would refrain from talking politics or directly addressing current political controversies.
“They are dealing with some very difficult issues,” Mattis said. “They don’t need someone who was in there before, no longer responsible, critiquing what’s going on. It’s a duty of quiet when you leave. I don’t want to do anything that our adversaries would interpret as weakening the fabric of this nation.”
Mattis was in Chicago to promote his new book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” and made his comments in a discussion before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at the Hilton Chicago.
His appearance came 18 years after 9/11 – the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil – that led to the war in Afghanistan.
Mattis didn’t waste time Wednesday in expressing his belief in good relationships with allied countries, noting that NATO didn’t hesitate to come to the United States’ defense in the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
“It is a reminder to everyone in this room how critical NATO is,” he said.
President Donald Trump has been critical of the alliance, claiming that other members are not spending as much on defense as the U.S. is.
Mattis also spoke about what he sees as the biggest external threats facing the country: North Korea, Russia and China. But he said that domestic problems are an equally large threat – namely, the country’s corrosive politics and the debt racked up by the federal government.
“We’re on an unsustainable fiscal path right now, and you young people ought to be madder than heck about it,” he said.
Mattis avoided addressing the departure this week of national security adviser John Bolton, simply saying that “process matters more than personalities, and there’s has to be a good process in place.”
Mattis also spoke about his efforts in the second Iraq War, noting that it didn’t go as planned, particularly with a failure to establish a reliable, unifying ruling force after the fall of leader Saddam Hussein.
Though Mattis refrained from criticizing the current administration, he was direct about his opposition to some of the decisions made by former President Barack Obama. Specifically, Mattis said he opposed the Iran nuclear deal and felt Obama should have been tougher on that country’s leadership after it attempted an assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington D.C.
“You have to deal with Iran as a revolutionary regime, not a nation-state,” Mattis said.
Mattis made his remarks after an off-the-record luncheon attended by members of the Chicago Council.
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Video: Gen. Jim Mattis speaks with Ivo Daalder at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event. Jump to the 5:10 mark to hear Daalder's opening remarks; Mattis begins speaking at the 7:30 mark.