Photographer: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Mattis Calls Russia Competitor in a Rebuff of Trump

  • Pentagon nominee’s comments echo those of Tillerson, Pompeo
  • Ex-general calls for engagement with Russia but also vigilance

Defense secretary nominee James Mattis branded Russia a “strategic competitor” with which the U.S. will find little common ground, making him the latest of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks to break with their boss on the wisdom of seeking better ties with Vladimir Putin.

“I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality in what Russia is up to, and there’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee as it considered his nomination Thursday. The former Marine general’s assessment echoed that of committee Chairman John McCain, who said Russia “will never be our partner.”

The retired general’s strong endorsement of NATO, the alliance that was formed to counter Soviet aggression during the Cold War, marked a turn of events in which nominees directly challenged Trump’s campaign vision of cooperation and his refusal to condemn Russia for hacking during last year’s presidential campaign.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson called Russia a “danger” whose actions run counter to U.S. interests. On Thursday, Representative Mike Pompeo said in a statement issued shortly before his confirmation hearing for CIA director that “Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nearly nothing to aid in the destruction of ISIS.”

In a sign of strong bipartisan support for Mattis, the Senate passed a waiver Thursday from a law barring anyone from serving as secretary of defense within seven years after leaving the military. Mattis retired in 2013. The exemption legislation passed the Senate, 81 to 17, and the House is expected to clear the measure on Friday.

Backing NATO

Mattis sought to assuage broad concerns among lawmakers that the U.S. will step back from its leadership in the world, saying in his opening statement that “we must also embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.”

In answers to a questionnaire submitted to senators before the hearing, Mattis said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains “enormously” beneficial to U.S. national security because it “facilitates European stability and as a military alliance it helps sustain our values.”

His remarks may allay concerns about Trump’s comment during his presidential campaign that the U.S. may not keep its commitment to defend NATO allies unless they spend more on their military budgets.

Mattis said he’s had discussions with Trump about the importance of NATO and “he has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions, going deeper into” why Mattis is so supportive. “He understands where I stand,” Mattis said.

Like Trump, though, Mattis said he would press members of the 28-nation alliance to meet their stated goal to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

“If confirmed, I will also encourage our NATO allies to spend their defense dollars more wisely -- with appropriate and agreed shares devoted to procurement, research and development -- and to transform their forces,” Mattis said.

Engaging With Russia

Mattis, 66, a former Marine Corps general and a former head of the U.S. Central Command, placed important caveats on the possibilities for working with Russia.

“When we identify other areas where we cannot cooperate, we must confront Russia’s behavior, and defend ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to our interests,” Mattis said. He cited “alarming messages” from Moscow about the use of nuclear weapons, and information warfare, and said that Russia is trying to “break” NATO.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, said previous presidents failed in efforts to build a partnership with Russia because of “a stubborn fact that we must finally recognize: Putin wants to be our enemy.” In his opening statement at the hearing, the senator added, “He needs us as his enemy.”

McCain had praised the former Marine in a statement after his nomination as “one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.” Short and wiry with a brush-cut haircut, Mattis was known as the “Warrior Monk,” while Trump likes to use another of his nicknames: “Mad Dog.”

Exemption Legislation

While members of both parties have described Mattis as a skilled and thoughtful military leader, some have expressed concern about granting an exemption from the law intended to preserve civilian control. The House Armed Services Committee approved a waiver for Mattis on a 34-28 vote, with the panel’s Democrats voting against the measure.

Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the House panel’s top Democrat, said in a letter to colleagues that Mattis is “an excellent and professional” officer, but the House shouldn’t rush to vote on the waiver “without holding a hearing, without conducting proper oversight, and after being refused an opportunity to hear from General Mattis himself. ”

Mattis gave a nod in his remarks during the Senate hearing to the perceived need for the defense secretary to be a civilian.

"Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition," he said. "Both the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defense must impose an objective strategic calculus in the national security decision-making process and effectively direct its activities."

On other issues raised in the senators’ questionnaire:

  • Nuclear Weapons: Mattis endorsed deploying to Europe the newly upgraded B61 air-dropped nuclear bomb as well as dual-capable F-35 fighters that can drop conventional and nuclear weapons. He agreed to “carefully examine the utility and advisability of” fielding a new nuclear-tipped Long-Range Standoff Weapon to replace the aging AGM-86.
  • Critical Capabilities: He said the most critical capabilities for the Defense Department to maintain over the next decade were “a robust nuclear deterrent and lethal conventional forces, while ensuring that irregular warfare remains a core capability.” The Pentagon also must “enhance its cyber and space-based capabilities.”
  • Bigger Navy: Asked about Trump’s goal to increase the Navy’s fleet to 350 vessels from about 272 today, Mattis said, “If confirmed, I will work with Congress on all aspects of this issue, including procurement, timing, funding, cost-control and our strategic requirement for specific ship numbers and classes.”
  • Iraq: Mattis said the principal U.S. interest in Iraq “is to ensure” it doesn’t become “a rump state” of Iran, a nation that “has proven to be the primary source of turmoil in the Middle East.”
  • Budget caps: Mattis said he doesn’t believe any agreement to modify the 2011 Budget Control Act must apportion equal increases to defense and domestic spending, as did the Obama administration.
  • China: Its behavior “has led countries in the region to look for stronger U.S. leadership. If confirmed, I will examine ways to strengthen our allies and partners, while taking a careful look at our own military capabilities in the region. We must continue to defend our interests there -- interests that include upholding international legal rights to freedom of navigation and overflight.”
  • North Korea: Mattis answered “yes” when asked by the committee if he will examine whether U.S. forces in South Korea have the capability to destroy sites in North Korea containing weapons of mass destruction, “in particular that process, handle, or store special nuclear material.”