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Retired Marine Corps General Warns Against US Isolationism

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, former 11th commander of United States Central Command, speaks to U.S. Naval War College students, faculty and staff during a lecture of opportunity in Newport, R.I. (U.S. Navy photo by Ezra Bolender)
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, former 11th commander of United States Central Command, speaks to U.S. Naval War College students, faculty and staff during a lecture of opportunity in Newport, R.I. (U.S. Navy photo by Ezra Bolender)

PULLMAN -- A retired Marine Corps general wants America's next president to take a lesson from the "greatest generation" and stay engaged in the world.

Speaking to about 200 people at Washington State University Tuesday, Gen. James Mattis said military experience isn't a critical requirement for the next commander in chief. However, he or she should be familiar enough with the country's history to resist America's "always present appetite for isolationism."

Mattis was born in Pullman and raised in Richland. He spent 40 years in the Marine Corps, with much of that time in the Middle East. Prior to his retirement in 2013, he served as head of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Middle East today "is experiencing the most turmoil since the end of the Ottoman Empire -- that's the World War I time frame -- and it's getting worse," he said. "At the same time, U.S. influence in the region is at its lowest ebb in 40 years."

While many Americans -- and some presidential candidates -- question the country's continued involvement in the region, Mattis pointed to the World War II generation as an example of why the U.S. shouldn't turn its back.

At the start of the war, he said, even as Germany overran France and began bombing Britain, people felt it wasn't America's problem. They said the same thing when Japan invaded China.

"The result was we were attacked (at Pearl Harbor)," Mattis said. "Then, like it or not, they had to get engaged."

But that engagement didn't end with the war, he noted. America continued to work with its former enemies, creating the United Nations and helping them get their economies back on track.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman "was asked what he was most proud of," Mattis said. "He said whipping our enemies and then bringing them back into the embrace of nations. That had never been done before. 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."

America needs to stay engaged in the Middle East today, he said, both because its oil is critical to the world economy and because that's the only effective way to combat terrorism.

"The problems that emanate from the Middle East can't be contained in the Middle East," Mattis said. "We know that intellectually, but there's a tendency to want to put a pillow over our heads."

As a military commander in the region, he said, his real job was keeping the peace long enough for diplomats to address the issues and find solutions.

"We have to get back to using traditional diplomatic tools, economic tools and education" to improve relationships in the region, Mattis said. "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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