University of Colorado Denver students asked retired Gen. James Mattis questions ranging from the geopolitical to the personal on Tuesday. The discussion spanned ISIS militants in the Middle East and the conflict in Ukraine to Mattis's favorite books and how he'd like to be remembered.
Later in the day, the 11th commander of the U.S. Central Command (2010-2013) concluded his two-day visit to CU Denver with a Terrace Room talk about Middle East politics and history. Over 200 CU Denver student veterans attended the talk, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, Chancellor Jerry Wartgow and Pamela Jansma, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In the morning Q-and-A in the Student Commons Building, the group of five history and political science students, including veterans, delved deeply into multiple topics with the former U.S. Marine Corps general. He told them they have a key role to play: "If we have young people who can perhaps start looking at that (Middle East) world in a more sensible way, then maybe they can start coming up with solutions."
Mattis recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. leaders need to stop reacting to each immediate vexing issue in isolation. A student asked the former general if he believes this foreign-affairs approach is caused by sequestration or the 2011 Budget Control Act.
"No ... the lack of strategy goes back much longer," he said. During the Cold War, the United States established a clear goal of containing the then-Soviet Union until it collapsed from internal friction. "It was unbelievably successful—we didn't fight a hot war," Mattis said. "But since that time, the clarity has been lost and the political establishment has been unable to come up with a political end state, or the starting point, of any strategy. ... And, remember, strategy is about a lot more than the military. It's about economics, diplomacy, education."
Before embarking on a 41-year military career, the four-star general earned a bachelor's degree in history—"it reminds you that you face nothing new under the sun"—from Central Washington University. Mattis's affinity for the subject filled the discussion, as he sprinkled references to post-Napoleonic Europe, Civil War-era America and the origins of NATO. He even quoted Plato at one point: "Only the dead have seen the last of war."
In response to a student question, Mattis said the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq—against the advice of military leaders and the State Department—too soon as the nation wasn't ready to stand on its own. "By pulling those troops out, a vacuum was created," he said, "and vacuums in the Middle East are not filled, generally, with good impulses."
A student asked if the less-tangible nature of threats across the Middle East contributes to the lack of coherent political strategy.
Mattis said the complexity of the current Middle East is not that unusual in the historical spectrum. "There may be a new organization of those challenges, but the threat is plenty tangible," he said. "We appear to be suffering through a strategic deficit in the Western democracies in general and the United States in particular. It's one of the reasons we need you young folks to study history and come up and say, it may be difficult, but history has never accepted that excuse."
Mattis said the United States needs to take the approach of "walking a mile in their shoes" when working with Middle Eastern countries that are struggling against extremism. "Before we declare someone beyond the pale, we've got to be willing to work with them," he said. "I think that's our role right now—to find where we stand and work with those where we find differences."
That prompted another student question: What other strategies, aside from conventional military force, is necessary to combat Islamic extremism?
Mattis said it's key to support the countervailing forces of education, economics and reform-minded leaders in the region. He emphasized that such an effort begins by bringing together people who share common interests. "The military is part of that response—it may not even be the leading part of it—and you start working against (extremist) recruiting, their fundraising, their bastardization of education that's allowing this to grow," Mattis said. "You use the military ... to buy time for those other efforts to reduce the root causes (of extremism)."
In the Ukrainian conflict, Mattis said, Russia President Vladimir Putin aims to fragment NATO, "and it appears to be working." A student asked if it makes sense for the United States, or NATO, to intervene. Mattis said it's hard to tell what the military alliance of NATO, which does not include Ukraine, currently stands for. Twenty years ago, he said, the answer would have been a clear 'yes.' "It's very interesting that today you asked the question, and I can't even answer."
Mattis is a visiting lecturer at universities—including Stanford, Dartmouth, Texas A&M and Washington State—and often gets invited to speak to leaders of Silicon Valley startup firms near his home in Northern California. Mattis said he enjoys talking with young people because of their open-mindedness and intelligence—a refreshing change from the cynicism that pervades Washington, D.C.
With about 1,000 student veterans, CU Denver has a large veteran presence on campus, as well as innovative programs such as Boots to Suits. Mattis also visited with staff and students at the Veteran Student Services office. The former general donated his time in honor of CU Denver's student veterans; his visit was corrdinated by the History and Political Science departments.
"I did well getting an education wandering around the world," he said, "and I try to pass it on to young people." Mattis is extremely well-read, having a personal library of more than a thousand books.
When a student asked Mattis how he'd like to be remembered in history, he replied he'd prefer to anonymously teach people what he's learned. "I'm uninterested in any kind of spotlight," he said. "I signed a lot of orders sending young guys in to fight, and a lot of them paid the price. So there's no need for me to be remembered. I'd rather that their efforts be remembered."