Defense Secretary James "Mad Dog" Mattis sits down for a comprehensive and explosive interview with CBS's John Dickerson.
Mattis on destroying ISIS, the North Korean threat, and NATO:
MATTIS: Our strategy right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS. It is a threat to all civilized nations.
And the bottom line is, we are going to move in an accelerated and reinforced manner, throw them on their back foot. We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics, where we surround them.
Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We are not going to allow them to do so. We are going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.
DICKERSON: Explain what it means to be moving in an annihilation posture, as opposed to attrition.
MATTIS: Well, attrition is where you keep pushing them out of the areas that they are in, John, and what we intend to do by surrounding them is to not allow them to fall back, thus reinforcing themselves as they get smaller and smaller, making the fight tougher and tougher.
You can see that right now, for example, in Western Mosul, that is surrounded, and the Iraqi security forces are moving against them. Tal Afar is now surrounded. We have got efforts under way right now to surround their self-declared caliphate capital of Raqqa.
That surrounding operation is going on. And once surrounded, then we will go in and clean them out.
DICKERSON: One of the things you mentioned in this new accelerated tempo is that the president has delegated authority to the right level. What does that mean?
MATTIS: When you are in operations, the best thing you can do at the top level is get the strategy right.
You have to get the big ideas right. You have to determine, what is the policy, what is the level of effort you are willing to commit to it, and then you delegate to those who have to execute that strategy to the appropriate level.
What is the appropriate level? It's the level where people are trained and equipped to take decisions, so we move swiftly against the enemy. There is no corporation in the world that would, in a competitive environment, try and concentrate all decisions at the corporate level.
But I would point out here that we have not changed the rules of engagement. There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent. We do everything we can to protect the civilians. And actually lowering, delegating the authority to the lower level allows us to do this better.
DICKERSON: After the annihilation has been done, does that mean you can't let it fall back into ISIS hands?
MATTIS: Once ISIS is defeated, there is a larger effort under way to make certain that we don't just sprout a new enemy. We know ISIS is going to go down.
We have had success on the battlefield. We have freed millions of people from being under their control. And not one inch of that ground that ISIS has lost has ISIS regained. It shows the effectiveness of what we are doing.
However, there are larger currents, there are larger confrontations in this part of the world, and we cannot be blind to those. That is why they met in Washington under Secretary Tillerson's effort to carry out President Trump's strategy to make certain we don't just clean out this enemy and end up with a new enemy in the same area.
DICKERSON: You served under President Obama. You are now serving President Trump. How are they different?
MATTIS: Everyone leads in their own way, John.
In the case of the president, he has got to select the right people that he has trust in to carry out his vision of a strategy. Secretary Tillerson and I, we coordinate all of the president's campaign. We just make certain that foreign policy is led by the State Department.
I inform Secretary Tillerson of the military factors. And we make certain that then, when we come out of our meetings, State Department and Defense Department are tied tightly together, and we can give straightforward advice to the commander in chief.
DICKERSON: President Trump has said, to defeat ISIS, he has said that there has to be a humiliation of ISIS. What does that mean?
MATTIS: I think, as we look at this problem of ISIS, it is more than just an army. It is also a fight about ideas.
And we have got to dry up their recruiting. We have got to dry up their fund-raising. The way we intend to do it is to humiliate them, to divorce them from any nation giving them protection and humiliating their message of hatred, of violence.
Anyone who kills women and children is not devout. They have -- they cannot dress themselves up in false religious garb and say that somehow this message has dignity. We're going to strip them of any kind of legitimacy. And that is why you see the international community acting in concert.
DICKERSON: When should Americans look to see victory?
MATTIS: This is going to be a long fight.
The problems that we confront are going to lead to an era of frequent skirmishing. We will do it by, with, and through other nations. We will do it through developing their capabilities to do a lot of the fighting. We will help them with intelligence. Certainly, we can help train them for what they face.
And you see our forces engaged in that from Africa to Asia. But, at the same time, this is going to be a long fight. And I don't put timelines on fights.
DICKERSON: What about civilian casualties as a result of this faster tempo?
MATTIS: Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.
We do everything humanly possible, consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties, at all costs.
DICKERSON: Under this new aggressive posture, what can be done that would not have been done, say, six months ago?
MATTIS: Probably the most important thing we are doing now is, we are accelerating this fight. We are accelerating the tempo of it.
We are going to squash the enemy's ability to give some indication that they're -- they have invulnerability, that they can exist, that they can send people off to Istanbul, to Belgium, to Great Britain, and kill people with impunity.
We are going to shatter their sense of invincibility there in the physical caliphate. That is only one phase of this. Then we have the virtual caliphate that they use the Internet. Obviously, we are going to have to watch for other organizations growing up.
We cannot go into some kind of complacency. I am from the American West. We have forest fires out there. And some of the worst forest fires in our history, the most damage were caused when we pulled the fire crews off the line too early.
And so we are going to have to continue to keep the pressure on the enemy. There is no room for complacency on this.
DICKERSON: A hundred civilians were killed after a U.S. bomb hit a building in Mosul in Iraq. Is this the result of this faster tempo? Is this the kind of thing Americans needs to get used to as a natural byproduct of this strategy?
MATTIS: The American people and the American military will never get used to civilian casualties.
We will -- we will fight against that every way we can possibly bring our intelligence and our tactics to bear. People who had tried to leave that city were not allowed to by ISIS . We are the good guys. We are not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys. And so we are doing what we can.
We believe we found residue that was not consistent with our bomb. So we believe that what happened there was that ISIS had stored munitions in a residential location, showing once again the callous disregard that has characterized every operation they have run.
DICKERSON: Help people understand what a conflict with North Korea would be like and how it would be different.
MATTIS: A conflict in North Korea, John, would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes.
Why do I say this? The North Korean regime has hundreds of artillery cannons and rocket launchers within range of one of the most densely populated cities on earth, which is the capital of South Korea.
We are working with the international community to deal with this issue. This regime is a threat to the region, to Japan, to South Korea, and in the event of war, they would bring danger to China and to Russia as well.
But the bottom line is, it would be a catastrophic war if this turns into combat, if we are not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.
DICKERSON: North Korea has been testing missiles. Are they getting any better at their capability?
MATTIS: We always assume that, with a testing program, they get better with each test.
DICKERSON: You say North Korea is a threat to the region. Is North Korea a threat to the United States?
MATTIS: It is a direct threat to the United States. They have been very clear in their rhetoric.
We don't have to wait until they have an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon on it to say that now it has manifested completely.
DICKERSON: What is the line in North Korea that, if the regime crosses that line, in your view, the U.S. should take action?
MATTIS: I would prefer not to answer that question, John. The president needs political maneuver room on this issue.
We do not draw red lines unless we intend to carry them out. We have made very clear that we are willing to work with China, and we believe China has tried to be helpful in this regard.
DICKERSON: Give me a sense, if you can, of the time when you think North Korea gets to the point of no return.
MATTIS: We consider it a direct threat even today, the North Korean threat.
As far as that specific threat, I don't want to put a timeline on it. At this time, what we know, I would prefer to keep silent about, because we may actually know some things the North Koreans don't even know.
DICKERSON: Let me switch to NATO.
The president recently met with NATO leaders. He didn't mention the commitment in NATO, the so-called Article 5 commitment, an attack on one is an attack on all. Why not?
MATTIS: I think, when President Trump chooses to go to NATO personally and stand there alongside the other more than two dozen nations in NATO, that was his statement, not words, actions.
DICKERSON: But the president seems to need convincing on the power and importance of the NATO alliance. Do you have to convince him of how important NATO is?
MATTIS: We have had good talks about it, John.
In my initial job interview with the president, he brought up his questions about NATO. And my response was that I thought that, if we didn't have NATO, that he would want to create it, because it's a defense of our values, it is a defense of democracy.
He was very open to that. Obviously, he had to make a decision about whether or not he was going to nominate me to be the secretary of defense. And although I immediately showed him that my view on that was rather profoundly in support of NATO, he at that point nominated me.
DICKERSON: What do the Russians want?
MATTIS: Beats me.
Right now, Russia's future should be wedded to Europe. Why they see NATO as a threat is beyond me. Clearly, NATO is not a threat. But, right now, Russia is choosing to be a strategic competitor, for any number of reasons. But the bottom line is, NATO is not a threat. And they know it. They have no doubt about it.
DICKERSON: You have said that Russia is trying to break apart NATO. Is there -- is the United States going to take any action to deal with Russia as a threat to NATO, either in helping in the Balkans or any other way?
MATTIS: Right now, we are dealing with Russia, attempting to deal with Russia under President Trump's direction, in a diplomatic manner.
At the same time, while willing to engage diplomatically, we are going to have to confront Russia when it comes to areas where they attack us, whether it be with cyber, where they try to change borders using armed force.
And that is admittedly a strategically uncomfortable position, engaging diplomatically, trying to find a way out of this situation, but confronting them where we must. And we are going to continue in this mode, and, hopefully soon, our diplomats will work their magic and start moving us out of this quandary we find ourselves in.
DICKERSON: Let me ask you about the Paris climate accords. The president is going to make a decision on this.
MATTIS: I was sitting in on some of the discussions in Brussels, by the way, where climate change came up, and the president was open, he was curious about why others were in the position they were in, his counterparts in other nations.
And I am quite certain the president is wide open on this issue as he takes in the pros and cons of that accord.
DICKERSON: What keeps you awake at night?
MATTIS: Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.