General James Mattis, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, gave an overview of the Middle East in a lecture Wednesday, explaining America’s enduring interests and military role in the region. He said the U.S. must maintain American presence in the Middle East and initiate international cooperation.
Mattis said that Egypt is a key barometer to the Arab Spring and a critical state in the region.
“They are experiencing now a very long and winding road towards democracy,” he said. “They are in the midst of setbacks, and the sooner they get back on a democratic election schedule the better.” The democratization process could take a long time, and Mattis was cautious about the expectation that Egypt could restart its democratic process in six months to one year.
With Syria’s civil war next door, Lebanon has been destabilized by the thousands of refugees pouring over the border. Emerging from a history of conflict and war, Lebanon has long been a peace-seeking moderator in the Middle East.
“It’s a pretty thin veneer right now about to be broken through by what’s going on in Syria next door,” he said.
With Syria’s internal turmoil expanding throughout the region, Mattis traced the roots of the Syrian civil war.
“It’s good to remember how this civil war started, because [Bashar al-]Assad and his regime were ready for this,” he said. “This was not a surprise. They were completely ready to fight this kind of war.”
Attributing the Syrian uprising to the extremely oppressive measures adopted by the regime, such as suppressing demonstrations and killing protesters, he cited his own experiences encountering Syrian refugees on the Georgian border.
“I have dealt with refugees on the Dalmatian and Bosnia coasts and in Southeast Asia. I have seen them in Africa,” Mattis said, “I have never seen refugees as traumatized as those coming out of Syria.”
Mattis said Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council to oppose military intervention in Syria as “regrettable”.
Assad is only in power due to support from Iran, referring to Iran’s monetary and political support for the Syrian government. When speaking about Iran, Mattis questioned the flexibility that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has for diplomacy.
“He is not a reformer himself,” he said. “I would have very modest expectations if the internal dynamics in Iran would permit the freedom he needs.”
Mattis criticized Iran’s disregard for international norms, citing a government-issued assassination attempt in 2011 against the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
“From the U.S. perspective, Iran must not be allowed to dominate this region,” Mattis stressed, “This would lead to a very difficult situation. As Henry Kissinger pointed out, Iran is acting like a revolutionary cause, not like a nation.”
Turning to Libya, Mattis said that although the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi collapsed long ago, the country remains deeply fractured.
Mattis said the U.S. will continue its policy in Afghanistan to protect the people against an extremist enemy, including training the Afghanistan army. He stressed the importance of lasting allies and partners in this effort, as 48 countries currently have troops in Afghanistan alongside U.S. soldiers. The U.S. army will remain in Afghanistan for another year, but eventually combat forces will leave and only training groups will remain under NATO’s directions.
He stressed the importance of education in preventing future conflict in the Middle East.
“Education in the long-run will go to the root cause of this ignorance that allows what happened on 9/11 to take root,” Mattis said.
Kevin Zhang ’17 said he was surprised by the level of interpersonal connection between American leaders and their Middle East counterparts that Mattis discussed.
“I often find myself thinking of foreign affairs in terms of papers and ideas, but it’s more often conducted by people one-on-one,” he said.
Zhang questioned the objectivity of Mattis’s view on military action, and said Mattis focused on the positive impact of the Afghan army’s fighting against Taliban, while neglecting the extremely high attrition rate within the Afghan army.
Retired lieutenant Ted Ohnemus, who worked under Mattis as a liaison in Iraq 10 years ago, said he was glad Mattis spoke on campus. “The opportunity to have General Mattis at Dartmouth was really an opportunity for the students to see the type of man he really is,” he said.
Dickey Center director Daniel Benjamin introduced Mattis.
“It was terrific to have someone with General Mattis’s experience and scope to speak with the Dartmouth community,” he said in an interview. “He gave a terrific overview of a region in turmoil. From the perspective of the Dickey Center, this is exactly what we want to achieve.”
Wednesday’s lecture, sponsored by the Dickey Center for International Understanding, was held in Cook Auditorium.