Lawmakers will question President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, on Thursday in a confirmation hearing expected to center on the threat from Iran and an intensifying American rivalry with Russia.
Mattis, a respected former officer who commanded troops in some of the most important battles of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, is one of a cadre of generals Trump has selected for senior positions.
He appears before lawmakers as Trump, a week before taking office, fends off questions about his ties to the Russian government and as some of the president-elect’s other Cabinet picks face intense questioning in their own confirmation hearings.
Mattis’s remarks may provide hints about how the Trump administration, which has not put forward comprehensive national security plans, may alter the posture of the world’s most advanced military as it juggles threats including the Islamic State and an ascendant China, and grapples with shocks to the NATO alliance and cuts to defense spending.
In his opening statement, Mattis will promise lawmakers that, if confirmed, he will work to ensure the American military remains ready to confront a range of adversaries and challenges.
“My priorities as Secretary of Defense will be to strengthen military readiness, strengthen our alliances in league with our diplomatic partners, and bring business reforms to the Department of Defense,” Mattis said, according to a copy of the statement provided by Trump’s transition team.
The 66-year-old former officer has been known as a leading military scholar and for his use of the call sign “Chaos” during overseas deployments. His blunt style has also brought controversy at times, as have his hawkish views on confronting threats in the Middle East.
Mattis was named the head of U.S. Central Command, one of the U.S. military’s most influential positions, in 2010, but left in 2013 amid disagreement with the White House over the general’s desire to intensify the military response to Iranian activities throughout the region.
Although Mattis’s hawkish views on the danger from Iran appear to coincide with Trump’s, he appears more supportive of leaving President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran intact than his future boss. Mattis’s skeptical view of Islamist political movements in the Middle East may likewise coincide with the new commander-in-chief’s suspicion of Islam.
But it is not clear the two men will agree on Russia. Military leaders have bristled at Obama administration attempts to broaden military cooperation with Russia in Syria. Trump’s apparent willingness to set aside differences with Moscow and potentially embrace a full partnership in the fight against the Islamic State could renew friction between the Pentagon and the White House.
In his opening statement, Mattis appeared to defend military alliances that Trump has repeatedly questioned. The president-elect has expressed skepticism about U.S. commitments to NATO and Asian partners.
“We must also embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither,” Mattis said.
Mattis’s past suggests that he may act as a restraint on some of Trump’s impulses on national security issues, including the president-elect’s campaign statement about his willingness to employ waterboarding on terrorism suspects. He seemed to temper that position after meeting with Mattis.
Legislators also will consider whether his confirmation could set a dangerous precedent in ceding civilian control of the military because he is so recently retired.
Current law requires former military personnel to have left service seven years before becoming defense secretary, unless a congressional waiver is granted. Lawmakers are expected to vote on a waiver proposal this week.
Although numerous lawmakers have expressed concerns about appointing a recently retired officer to lead the Pentagon, Mattis is expected to win the waiver, in part because of the esteem his lengthy military career has earned on Capitol Hill.
In his opening statement, Mattis promised to provide “strong civilian leadership” at the Pentagon.
“Civilian leaders bear these responsibilities because the esprit-de-corps of our military, its can-do spirit, and its obedience to civilian leadership reduces the inclination and power of the military to criticize or oppose the policy it is ultimately ordered to implement,” he said.
Mattis also will face questions about the size of the U.S. military after years of budget reductions and cuts to the force. Trump has promised to increase defense spending.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe