UAE must keep faith in America, says former US defence secretary James Mattis

Four star general gives speech at Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi

The UAE must keep faith in the United States despite a temptation to believe the country was “coming apart at the seams”, Donald Trump’s former defence secretary has said.

James "Jim" Mattis, who quit the senior cabinet role late last year due to differences of opinion with the President, said unity was vital in efforts to contain adversaries such as Iran, which he blamed for the recent sabotage operations off the coast of Fujairah.

In front of an audience which included Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed,  Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, he repeatedly praised the UAE leadership and its people, urging the nation to maintain its close ties with Washington.

He said the political division  engulfing his own country, together with mixed messages about America’s role in the world, was the price of democracy and that recent “strains” should not sour a special friendship between the nations.

The retired Marine Corps general also took a thinly veiled swipe at China and Russia, suggesting neither was a “real brother” to the UAE despite signs of growing ties between the countries.

“Watching America right now, especially young people, they could have some questions,” the 68-year-old four star general, who played major roles in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, said.

“It seems like it’s chaotic in Washington DC, you can’t get a straight message out.

“After [the American revolution] we set up our government to be always arguing with each other, inside the government.

“We set it up on purpose like that… so we’re going to confuse you at times because democracies go through these periods where there’s a lot of arguments, a lot of discussion, disagreements.

“It can certainly cause concern to our friends to look at this and say ‘wow, is America coming apart at the seams?’ I can assure you it is not. I believe it is critical to the children of both of our nations that we stay strong.”

Mr Mattis flew in to the UAE to give a lecture at Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi in a session chaired by Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States.

He said he turned down “99 per cent” of speaking engagements but was keen to address a UAE audience because of his affection and appreciation for the country. He said the Pope’s recent visit to the country earlier this year as well as the staging of the Special Olympics in March had strengthened the UAE’s reputation overseas.

Mr Mattis went on to say he had met a lady on a flight out of Colorado who had been attending the Special Olympics for two decades.

She had said the UAE event had been the best she had ever attended and that she had come away with a view of a “compassionate” country.

He also said Iran’s behaviour “must change” in light of the incidents of shipping sabotage off the coast of Fujairah a week ago - which Tehran has denied being behind - and the drone attack on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, which Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for.

“These are events that highlight why Iran’s behaviour must change; this is an area where we are in agreement,” he said.

FILE: U.S. President Donald Trump, left, pauses while speaking as James Mattis, US secretary of defense, listens during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation on Thursday, citing differences over policy with Donald Trump, a day after the president abruptly called for the withdrawal of American forces from Syria. Trump’s cabinet and cabinet-level positions have seen far more resignations and dismissals than other recent administrations. Our gallery pulls together Trump's top White House aides that have departed or announced their departure, Bannon, Bossert, Cohn, Flynn, Hicks, Manigault, Mcfarland, McGahn, McMaster, Powell, Priebus, Scaramucci, Short, Spicer, Sessions, Kelly and Mattis. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg

“From the grand strategic, to the more tactical immediate issues, we share common ground. Our strategic relationship… is broad enough, deep enough, strong enough to withstand any temporary challenges of any sort. The underpinnings are just that strong.

“The United States is [debating] internally what is its role in the world. My advice, when I’m asked for it, is Washington needs to engage more in the world and intervene militarily less.

“As someone who is committed to UAE safety and sovereignty as being key to peace in the region, I yearn for the day that the GCC is once again back together and united, with Egypt and Jordan standing alongside you, confronting together Iran’s destabalising activities.”

Asked by Mr Al Otaiba specifically how Iran should be dealt with following the recent incidents off Fujairah, Mr Mattis called for nations to come together and use both economics and diplomacy to set limits of acceptable behaviour.

“We need to contain this kind of behaviour until the Iranian people – our problem is not with the Iranian people – can do what they have to do in Tehran.”

Mr Mattis abruptly quit as defence secretary in December last year, saying President Trump deserved to have someone in the role whose views were better aligned with his own.

His decision to quit came after the President announced his intention to start pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan.

In a candid resignation letter, Mr Mattis criticised President Trump for failing to value America’s closest allies, hinting at differences on a number of other key issues, including Russia and Nato.

On Monday, addressing an audience which also included senior UAE ministers, he made reference to China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group.

He also said that “unilateralism will not work” in dealing with Iran and that “military must work to buy time for diplomats to work their magic”.

“[The UAE] has strategic patience in a world of impatience,” he said, and the country deserved great credit for exemplifying the strength of diplomacy.

“I come here today as a private citizen," he said. "I salute what this country is all about, but please understand that I speak bluntly and I speak favourably for you wherever I go.

“I also speak from both my heart and my head, I speak the truth if I see it… No nation can lock up a million Muslims and then look you in the eye and say they’re your brother. No nation can sell you aircraft, and say they’re your brother, and sell the same aircraft to Iran.

“I will assure you no nation will be more honest with you than America…. America will frustrate you at times because of its form of government, but the UAE and America will always find their way back to common ground, on that I have no doubt.”