American blood and lives have been required many times to keep the Middle East stable, said Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis.
"It's not an area we can turn our backs on," the Richland High School graduate told about 170 people Friday during the Columbia Basin Badger Club forum at the Pasco Red Lion.
Soon after Mattis took the podium, he asked veterans and Gold Star families -- those who have had a relative killed in action -- to stand and be recognized.
Since 1979, Mattis said he's spent much of his life in the Middle East. And for the past two years, he's been responsible for Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan as commander of U.S. Central Command, one of 10 combatant commands in the U.S. military. The Pentagon chose Mattis to replace David Petraeus, the four-star Army general who was appointed director of the CIA.
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Mattis, 61, said he sees a lack of information about the Middle East that can lead to misconceptions. For example, most citizens of those countries want to be able to raise their families and are not religious extremists.
"Human beings have a lot in common," he said.
Cindy Veneziano of Richland said she enjoyed Mattis' thoughtful reflection on the importance of tolerance and understanding differences.
"It's a good lesson for all of us," she said.
Americans need to realize they live in a global world, Mattis said.
"You can't say, 'I'm just going to shut off part of the world,' " he said.
Mattis said he doesn't see a pell-mell rush to democracy in the Middle East. People are upset with unresponsive governments, but each country is different.
It's important to support each country's bid for democratic reform, but it's also necessary to allow those reforms to come at their own pace, Mattis said. And while he hopes every country will form a democracy, some may not, he said.
Iran is the single biggest threat to stability in the Middle East, Mattis said, and it receives most of his attention.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provides support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Hezbollah, Mattis said. The Iranian government also has been trying to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally to Iran, in power, Mattis said.
The problem is not with the Iranian people, but with "thugs" in control, Mattis said.
"What you have right now is a country not acting like a country," he said. "It's acting like a cause."
In Afghanistan, Mattis said Afghan forces are in the lead or transitioning to the lead in provinces where 50 percent of the population lives.While defending the Afghan people, Mattis said they are helping build up the Afghan forces and trying to win over those enemies who are reconcilable. Troops are expected to still be there in 2014.
The international community also must contribute until Afghanistan can get back onto its own economic feet, he said.
"We don't need another 9/11 coming out of Afghanistan," he said.
Mattis said he turns down most requests to speak, but he considered speaking at the Badger Club forum important.
"You cannot have a democracy where you do not have an informed citizenry," he said.
Mattis is scheduled to speak at 2:30 p.m. today at Rotary International's District 5080 conference at Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick. The district covers Eastern Washington, northern Idaho and part of British Columbia.