Mattis at Odds With Trump on Russia, Backs Women in Combat

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill on Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill on Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis set out positions at odds with the campaign statements of President-elect Donald Trump on Russia and Iran at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to become the nation's 26th secretary of defense.

Mattis also pledged to keep in place the current policies opening up all military occupational specialties, including combat jobs, to women and allowing gays to serve openly.

Trump has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested working with the Kremlin to combat terrorism, but Mattis used his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee to warn against Russian aggression in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria.

"History is not a straightjacket, but I've never found a better guide for the way ahead," Mattis said, pointing to the failures of U.S. policy since World War II in improving relations with the Soviet Union and now Russia.

"Right now, the most important thing is that we must recognize the reality" of Putin's continuing adversarial policies, he said.

Mattis said he would seek to bolster the NATO alliance and "defend ourselves where we must" against Russia. He said he had discussed Russian aggression with Trump and "he's shown himself to be open" on the issue, but "he understands where I stand."

On Iran, Mattis said the U.S. has no choice but to continue with support of the nuclear deal to rein in Iran's nuclear programs, which Trump has suggested he may want to renegotiate or scrap.

"It's not a friendship treaty, but when America gives its word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies" to police the agreement, Mattis said.

Under questioning from Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, Mattis said he would support the current policy on women in combat roles and gays serving openly.

"I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military," Mattis said. On gays in the military, Mattis told Gillibrand, "Frankly, senator, I've never cared about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with."

Mattis elaborated on the issue of women in combat in his written responses to advance questions from the committee.

When asked whether Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's previous decision to open combat arms units was based on "an adequate review" of military analysis, Mattis wrote, "I believe that Secretary Carter appropriately carried out his duties. I have not personally reviewed the data and analysis that Secretary Carter had available to him before he made a decision on this issue. For that reason, I cannot characterize whether the review was adequate."

In response to a question on whether the occupational standards developed for ground combat occupations reflect "actual, regular, and recurring duties," Mattis pledged to "study the rationale and implementation of occupational standards across each of the Services. I will regularly consult with the Committee on the basis for occupational standards."

In other remarks prepared for the committee, Mattis said his primary mission at the Pentagon would be allow the State Department to negotiate from a "position of strength" to avoid conflicts in an era of rapidly evolving worldwide threats.

"I will work to make sure our strategy and military calculus are employed to reinforce traditional tools of diplomacy, ensuring our president and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength," he said.

Mattis also said that Trump must avoid a go-it-alone approach on employing the military and instead work through allies and partnered local forces to carry out missions.

"We must embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither," Mattis said in what could be seen as an endorsement of the same general strategy carried out by President Barack Obama.

His remarks appeared aimed at easing the concerns of senators over Trump's campaign remarks suggesting that the U.S. might reduce commitments to NATO and alter relationships with key Asian allies Japan and South Korea.

Mattis also showed deference to civilian control of the military in seeking a waiver from Congress to allow him to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Current law bars military officers from accepting cabinet posts until seven years after retirement. Mattis stepped down as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013.

"Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition," he said, and "if the Senate consents and if the full Congress passes an exception to the seven-year requirement, I will provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions."

"I recognize my potential civilian role differs in essence and in substance from my former role in uniform," said Mattis, who served 41 years in the Marine Corps.

The Senate panel later voted 24-3 to grant Mattis the waiver, signaling that he was headed for easy confirmation before the full Senate. Voting against were Gillibrand; Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts; and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. Later in the day, the full Senate approved the waiver by a vote of 81-17.

Mattis had agreed to testify on the waiver Thursday afternoon before the House Armed Services Committee following his Senate hearing, but his appearance was abruptly canceled Wednesday, reportedly by the transition team for President-elect Donald Trump for reasons yet to be specified.

House Democrats immediately threatened to vote "No" as a bloc against the waiver. Since World War II, only one defense secretary has been confirmed under a waiver -- Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II.

"This is a major issue affecting civilian control of the military, and Congress has a responsibility to consider it carefully with hearings and a mark-up," said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat and the ranking HASC member.

Mattis, a legend in the Corps for his plain talk and lead-from-the-front style, was soft-spoken and reserved in his exchanges with the committee, in contrast to his "Mad Dog" image promoted by Trump.

To bolster Mattis' credentials, he was introduced to the panel by a bipartisan team of former senators who earned respect on both sides of the aisle during their long careers.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who served as either chairman or ranking committee member, and former Sen. William Cohen, a Maine Republican who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, both said that a Defense Secretary Mattis would honorably fill the role.

In his opening remarks, McCain said, "I, for one, could not be happier" to be presiding at the hearing, which is the first step in the confirmation process. "Our nation needs Gen. Mattis more than ever."

In their questioning, committee Republicans depicted Mattis as a strong leader who would push for major increases in defense spending and reverse what they see as a military strategy under the Obama administration that projected U.S. indecision and weakness.

"You are going to be confirmed by a strong bipartisan vote" in the full Senate, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who ran against Trump in the primaries, told Mattis. "Thank you for your willingness to come back and pull this country back from the precipice."

Cruz sought Mattis' support for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, made by Lockheed Martin with major facilities in Fort Worth, Texas. Trump has questioned the huge cost overruns on the F-35 and suggested that the F-18 Super Hornet might be an adequate replacement, but Mattis said that the F-35 "is crucial for our own air superiority in the future because of its stealth" and advanced avionics.

He said continued production of the F-35 is also crucial to U.S. allies. "To them, it's an all-in situation," Mattis said.

Trump has doubts about the overall cost of the F-35, but "he just wants the best bang for the buck."

Mattis tended to avoid definitive answers to many questions, saying he would need more time to consider a response and promising to get back to the committee, but he put down markers on a range of issues:

Russia and Iran

Mattis lumped Russia together with other threats as posing a significant danger to the shaky world order brought about mainly by the efforts of the U.S. after World War II. "I think [stability in the world] is under the biggest attack since World War II -- from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea," he said.

McCain said, "I've watched three presidents commit themselves to new relationships with Vladimir Putin. All three have been an abysmal failure."

Mattis responded that "I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with [in] Mr. Putin. We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps, the integrated steps -- diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps --- working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must."

"I'm all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to," Mattis said. "There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia."

On the Iran nuclear deal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and critic of Trump, said that during the campaign Trump "gave his word to the American people" that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a "terrible deal" and vowed that "I'm going to change it because it's terrible."

"It's not a deal I would have signed, sir," Mattis said in response, but the U.S. is now committed with its allies to the deal and must abide by it. Mattis said he would back increased focus on Iran by the intelligence community to detect any effort to cheat on the agreement.

He also said that Iran is a "destabilizing" force in the region and he would work with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on new strategies to counter Iran's influence. One way would be to work with Arab partners in the region on collaborative anti-missile defense, Mattis said.

ISIS and North Korea

Mattis told the committee that he backs the current strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria by taking the strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, but said he would look for ways to intensify and accelerate the campaigns.

Once ISIS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, the U.S. will still have to assist in guarding against terrorism by the remnants of ISIS and assist in promoting political stability in Iraq and Syria, he said.

"Our principal interest in Iraq is to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran and party to Iran's quest for regional hegemony -- a quest that poses a threat to peace and stability," Mattis said in written testimony to the committee.

He was less clear on how to proceed in Syria's civil war. "It does not lend itself to a one or two paragraph answer," Mattis said. "It is necessary to define the problems posed by the conflict, and to establish what level of priority we must assign to solving those problems in the midst of dealing with our other challenges."

On both Iraq and Syria, Mattis said he would be guided by a single principle: "The most important thing to know when you go into a shooting war is how you want it to end."

On North Korea, Mattis said that the U.S. "must cooperate closely with our allies in the region, in particular the Republic of Korea and Japan, and work with other states with important interests in the situation, including Russia and China" to rein in North Korea's threats and provocations. He also called for bolstering U.S. homeland and regional anti-missile defenses.

"We need to continue to strengthen our homeland and theater missile defense capabilities while working with our allies to strengthen their military capacity to deter and, if necessary, respond to aggression by North Korea," he said.

At the hearing, Mattis declined to be drawn out on whether Trump had drawn his own "red line" by saying of North Korea's threat to test launch an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that "it won't happen." When asked whether the U.S. should shoot down an ICBM test launch, Mattis said, "I don't think we should take anything off the table."

Force of the Future

In his management of the Pentagon, Mattis said, "All personnel policies will be designed to bring troops home alive and victorious." To do that, "It is imperative to disaggregate functions that add value, including those that increase the lethality of the force and help the department achieve its aims, from functions that are duplicative and unnecessary."

How that plays out in terms of pay, headquarters staff reductions, and reforms in the way the Pentagon buys weapons will have to await his review of Pentagon processes, Mattis said.

Mattis said he was open to making U.S. Cyber Command a full, unified combatant command. "I've got to look at the breakout," Mattis said, but "philosophically, I'm OK with it."

Under questioning from the newest SASC member, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mattis indicated that he would retain the Defense Innovation Board and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) initiatives of outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to forge closer ties to the high-tech community and speed DoD acquisitions of the latest in cutting-edge equipment.

Mattis said he "absolutely" agrees that the DoD must adapt to change, adding, "We should embrace any area where we have that opportunity" to coordinate and collaborate with Silicon Valley and the high-tech communities in other areas.

On women in the military, Mattis said that he would be guided by strict adherence to standards. "The standards are the standards and, when people meet the standards, that's the end of the discussion on that," he said.

"Today, over 15 percent of today's active-duty force is female. Our military could not accomplish its missions without these women. As we ask more from our female enlisted members and officers, we owe them more as well," Mattis said. He noted that as a commander he had not hesitated in putting women on the front lines with men.

Not a 'Mad Dog'

In Iraq, Mattis' call sign was "Chaos" and in his long career in uniform he acquired a reputation for colorful, to the point, and sometimes expletive-laced quotes. Mattis said to his troops in Iraq, "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

Along the way, Mattis acquired the nickname "Mad Dog." Trump has taken to calling him that, but the lifelong bachelor sometimes called the "warrior monk" told the committee that the "Mad Dog" moniker was not to his liking, and his friends never call him that.

When asked about the "Mad Dog" nickname by Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, Mattis said: "Senator, first I assure you that that nickname was given to me by the press, and some of you may have experienced similar occasions with the press where perhaps they didn't get it quite right."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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