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Splitting From Trump, Defense Pick Mattis Slams Russia, Supports Iran Deal

Like other cabinet nominees, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis differs from his soon-to-be boss on some of the biggest issues that will face the Pentagon.

Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 12, 2017. / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 12, 2017. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to become the next secretary of defense, staked out sharply divergent views from those of his potential boss on Thursday, strongly backing NATO, lambasting Russia, and accepting the Iran nuclear deal. He also showed little appetite for rolling back a slate of Defense Department social reforms hated by the Republican Party.

Most pointedly, Mattis offered lawmakers in Congress a full-throated endorsement of the NATO alliance, countering months of campaign-trail rhetoric from Trump, who suggested the United States gains little from the alliance and carries too much of the burden.

“If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it. It is vital to the United States,” Mattis told a Senate panel, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin — long an object of Trump’s praise and his hopeful dance partner on the global stage — is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”

“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with” in regard to Putin, Mattis continued. He said the United States must work with its European allies on diplomatic, economic, and military steps to counter Russia and “defend ourselves where we must.”

The highly respected former head of U.S. Central Command and wartime leader in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a time when Trump is battling a new round of questions over his alleged ties to the Russian government, questions that have dogged Trump and several of his advisors for much of the presidential campaign.

Asked directly about Trump’s calls for a closer relationship with Russia, the general insisted that he agrees with the president-elect that there should be some engagement but that he has “very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.”

Although Trump has long said he would renegotiate or pull out of the Iran deal completely, Mattis said it’s important for the United States to live up to its agreement. “When America gives [its] word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” he told the panel, admitting that the current deal isn’t one he would have signed off on.

A longtime Iran hawk who was asked to step down from his job as head of Central Command by President Barack Obama in 2013 over his proposals to strike targets inside Iran, Mattis insisted that he would have the Pentagon ready to respond to Iranian military aggression.

He said he has spoken with Trump about NATO and Iran and found him “open” to his views. “He understands where I stand,” Mattis explained. That contrasted with Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, who on Wednesday told gobsmacked lawmakers that he had not discussed Russia with the president-elect.

But that quest to demonstrate independence was quickly squelched by Trump spokesman Sean Spicer. He told reporters Thursday that “at the end of the day, each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda,” adding, “They’re being asked their personal views here and there. They’re giving them.”

Spicer’s comments point to a larger issue that hangs over the hearings: the role that incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, also a former general, will play in managing Mattis and Tillerson and the access they will have to the Oval Office.

One former Pentagon official who asked to speak anonymously said Flynn, a retired three-star Army general who was sacked by Obama as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014, is driven by that ouster and the lost chance for a fourth star.

“There’s a pre-DIA Flynn and a post-DIA Flynn,” the official said. “If there are instances where Mattis and Flynn disagree, I can see Flynn becoming very defensive,” in part because Mattis outranked him in the military.

“You can imagine Mattis being a very effective buffer for the Pentagon. But I’m concerned how many times he can speak out before he suffers consequences” of disagreeing with Flynn.

Mattis told lawmakers Thursday that he would not have taken the job if he didn’t believe the president-elect would also be open to his input on this or any other matter.

Mattis also called for a permanent U.S. military presence in NATO’s Baltic allies, which are most vulnerable to Russian aggression. But that doesn’t play well in Moscow.

Just before the hearing, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia sees U.S. troop deployments to the Baltics as a direct threat. “Any country can regard a buildup of foreign military presence near its borders negatively, and it will do so,” he said. “We interpret this as a threat to us and as actions that endanger our interests and our security.”

Mattis also weighed in on controversial rules put in place last year by Defense Secretary Ash Carter allowing women to serve in combat roles — changes Mattis and the GOP establishment in Congress have publicly opposed. But he told senators that changing personnel policies isn’t high on his to-do list.

“I have no plans to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” he insisted.

He also declined to commit to rolling back Carter’s policy changes allowing gay and transgender people to serve openly but stopped short of offering the same commitment to leave the changes in place.

“I’m looking for military readiness,” he said and suggested better training to implement the new policies. “I’ve never cared very much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.”

After the hearing, both the Senate and House took up the issue of the change in law that will be required for Mattis to serve in the Defense Department. Under current law, an officer must be retired seven years before taking the Pentagon’s top job, but Mattis only retired in 2013.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the waiver in a 24-3 vote Thursday, while Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are expected to put up a fight after the Trump transition team cancelled Mattis’s scheduled testimony.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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