Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics. In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
OPINION — “Terrorism is an ambient threat, it’s out there just like the air we breathe. It’s going to be something we’re going to have to deal with throughout our lifetime and probably through the lifetime of our children’s generation. It’s a reality in the globalized world.”
That’s just one thought laid out by former Defense Secretary James Mattis during a wide-ranging, webcast conversation with former Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, which took place last Thursday under the auspices of the OSS Society.
The entire 45-minute discussion is worth hearing as Mattis, encouraged by Vickers, provided a stimulating, tour d’horizon of national security issues facing us all, including both foreign and domestic terrorism.
Internal problems have “as much gravity as external problems, perhaps more so,” Mattis said.
Claiming at one point that domestic U.S. threats are “not in my bailiwick,” Mattis nonetheless pointed to “the lack of unity on the consensual underpinnings of our democracy, and what we saw on January 6, fomented by a sitting president” as one of several troublesome internal signs endangering American democracy.
He quickly added, “The national debt and the skyrocketing of the national debt, these are internal problems that I would classify with every bit as much gravity as the external problems and perhaps more so. As you go back in our history and look at what it does to other nations and ours when we went through periods like this.”
Mattis went on: “Globalism hasn’t been altogether good in large parts of our country, and when people are losing hope we have got to go back and look at the economic situation and make sure when we go into certain trade deals, we’ve got to make sure those trade deals are dealt with if there are going to be second- and third-order effects inside our own country,” he said, hurting some Americans economically and leaving them without hope for the future.
“People are much more inclined to listen to conspiracy theories and other things when they’re losing hope,” Mattis said.
Speaking of terrorism, he said, “We have to be careful that we don’t surrender our traditional way of life as we confront it. You can’t have a risk free life in this world. It’s out there. It’s not going away.”
“How many of us realize we have no ordained right to exist, that every generation has had to fight for freedom in this, what George Washington in his first inaugural called an experiment?” Mattis said.
On his more familiar ground of dealing with foreign terrorists, Mattis emphasized how modest investments have worked.
“If you look at the SOCOM [Special Operations Command] model right now,” he said, “you see them enabling others to do their job. We provide niche capability. We provide training and yes, we have some hit teams out there. We have to do this by, with and through allies and partners who actually know the ground and keep it to the economy of forces effort on our side, because this is something that has to be addressed, we cannot walk away from it.”
He said the U.S. had walked away after World Wars I and II, and earlier in Afghanistan, calling them learned, hard lessons.
As for global threats, Mattis set up priorities based on what he listed as “urgency, power and will.”
North Korea, he said, has remained the urgent problem. Describing Kim Jong Un as “an unaccountable ruler,” Mattis said, “I don’t think he is nuts, but he verges on that, and it’s not in the world’s best interest to have that missile-nuclear technology in the hands of this guy.”
In terms of power, Mattis said it was Putin’s Russia.
“You can’t wish Putin away. He’s going to be there for the foreseeable future and in this case, he’s the only guy who’s changed borders in Europe by force of arms since World War II. He mucked around in our elections and other democracies, assassinated or tried to assassinate political foes.”
Nonetheless, Mattis said, “It’s still a weak hand that President Putin is playing economically, It’s a very weak hand, and in some ways that makes it a near term threat because perhaps the clock is ticking…He knows he will not be able to maintain his military buildup that he has been in march on for some years now.”
Mattis pointed out that Putin’s immediate neighbors, Sweden and Finland, have tried to find a way to live alongside Russia. They never joined NATO, but recently the Swedes have increased defense spending by 40 percent, purely out of concern for Russia, and the Finns had reinstituted conscription.
This is not a situation like the Cold War, Mattis said, describing Putin as more like a creature out of Dostoevsky – “You see a man who is fearful for Russia, a man surrounded by threats. In their history, they have had reasons to fear the Mongols, the Swedes, the French, the Germans, and you see this coming out.”
The irony, Mattis pointed out, is that the only nation that can help Russia is the United States, “and it’s never going to happen under Putin, it’s just not going to happen.”
He said, “We are going to have to confront Russia’s violations of sovereignty…with [Russia using] little green men and surrogates and proxies and other things, attacking democratic processes like elections.”
Describing what has to be done, Mattis recalled what Bush National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told him and other generals, “We do things with our allies, not to our allies…America is at its best when we are a team player. That’s when we bring a lot to bear.”
“Listen to allies, learn from them and then lead them,” Mattis said, again quoting a George Washington approach that he admitted some colleagues felt was boring.
When it came to “will,” the final of his three priorities, Mattis focused on China as having “the political capacity and the willingness to use the military capacity in a political way and use economics and use propaganda.”
For years, he said, Americans of both political parties wanted to see China emerge as a rising responsible stakeholder and that’s not what has happened.
Mattis noted the “Over last eight months, for reasons that I cannot explain — I don’t understand what’s the vulnerability that’s given President Xi to crack down harder in Hong Kong, dismiss international concerns over the human rights abuses on the Uighurs, to retrieve a muscular approach to Taiwan, to have an economic and cyber war on Australia, and start putting out word that the COVID vaccines of the West are suspect here.”
“Clearly what we have is a much more adversarial China for reasons that are not completely understandable right now”, Mattis said. They want neighbors to treat them like a tribute state, he said, to surrender your sovereignty and don’t do anything that upsets them. “Why are they doing this right now,” is Mattis’ question.
One reason Mattis raised was population makeup. “Demographics,” he explained. “China has upside-down demographics and they are going to have serious social problems that come from the one child law from years ago.”
As for Beijing-Washington relations, Mattis said, “Cooperate where we can, hopefully on COVID now that we have the WHO [World Health Organization], global warming, climate change, nuclear proliferation. But we also will confront China where we must, and that’s going to have to become increasingly part of our priorities.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Mattis dealt with war fighting and automation.
“You can change the character of war with technology,” he said, adding he’s not against technology but wants it if it is both reliable and integrated.
However, he described the fundamental nature of past wars that included human fear, courage, skill and mistakes. “What happens if we remove fear using robots and autonomous systems? What happens to the fundamental nature of war? How do you stop a war where your weapons of war are no long a human being and fear is no longer a consideration?”
Technology is going so fast these days, Mattis said, “it’s gotten in front of legislators, poets, philosophers and lawyers,” who previously had set civilization’s rules of the road.
Mattis asked, “How do you get control of this so we are not feeding our own destruction here? And we can do it on this planet. We all know the weapons exist now.”
Mattis confessed, “I don’t have the answers. It’s going to be one of the big challenges for people who don’t have the color of my hair, they are going to have to deal with this in the near term.”
Read more expert-driven national security opinion, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief.