James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 11, 2016, during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense. Screenshot photo.
Insisting multiple times that the US military needs to become stronger and more lethal, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, nonetheless, presented a moderate vision of military leadership in his Senate confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense.
Throughout a session dominated by concerns over how recently he retired from military service, Mattis refused to live up to his Marine Corps nickname—Mad Dog. “That nickname was given to me by the press,” he joked with the senators. “Perhaps they didn’t get it quite right.”
Mattis refused to present his views as conflicting with those of President-elect Donald Trump, but he signaled to senators throughout the hearing that, if confirmed, he would provide a voice of reason on military matters to a future-President whose political rhetoric has generated widespread concern about how he would deploy the US armed forces.
Mattis said that—because of threats from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and non-state terrorism—the current world order is “under the biggest attack since World War II.” In ranking these threats, he showed himself willing to diverge from Trump’s public statements by saying that the greatest US priority is Russia.
Pointing to Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, Mattis said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has chosen to be a strategic competitor, and an adversary in some areas,” one who is “trying to break” NATO. Mattis said he supports the US establishing a “permanent military presence” in the Baltics in order to deter further Russian aggression. When asked about Trump’s history of making favorable statements about Putin, Mattis said the President-elect “has shown himself open” to advice on the subject.
Mattis said he supports Trump’s stated desire to improve relations with Russia, but cautioned that he has “very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.” Because of this reality, Mattis said he fully supports strengthening US ties with NATO. “If we did not have NATO today we would need to create it,” he said. “NATO is vital to our national interest, it’s vital to the security of the United States, and it’s vital to the protection of the freedoms of the democracies that we’re allied with.”
Mattis added that Trump agrees on the importance of NATO. “I’m confident the President-elect expects us to live up to our word,” he said, “to include … Article Five,” referring to the principle that each NATO member nation agrees to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all member nations. “NATO is the most successful military alliance in modern history, probably ever,” Mattis said, and he promised to stand up “100 percent” for the defense of NATO allies.
The nominee also smoothed over differences between himself and the President-elect on military systems. Mattis fiercely defended the F-35 program, which Trump has criticized on Twitter and in meetings with defense contractors. He insisted that the stealth and electronic capabilities of the F-35 make it “critical for our own air superiority,” but he emphasized how the program connects the US with its partners. “Many of our allies have bet their air superiority on the F-35 program, and it bonds us tightly together with them.” He said his views on the program harmonize with Trump’s because “the President-elect has talked about the cost of it, but he has in no way shown a lack of support for the program. He just wants the best bang for the buck.”
Mattis offered revealing answers on some other military systems. He indicated that he would support the development of a new ICBM, saying it “provides a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary” who must use three to four times as many missiles to destroy that system. Mattis wavered on two other systems in the nuclear portfolio. Asked if he supports the B-21 program, he hesitated, then said “a manned bomber, yes,” indicating a lack of comfort with projected unmanned versions of the next-generation Air Force strategic bomber. On the Long Range Standoff weapon, Mattis was downright skeptical. “I need to look at that one,” he said. The program “makes sense,” he said, but he questioned LRSO’s “deterrent value” in relation to other components of the nuclear triad.
On the military budget, Mattis said he wants to improve Pentagon “business practices.” These would include a streamlined acquisitions process, abandoning a separate budget line for war expenditures (“my desired instinct is that everything is in the base budget”), and “working with our allies to make sure it’s not only the American taxpayers carrying this burden.” Where Trump has promised large military spending increases, Mattis showed more moderate instincts. “We don’t want a military that breaks the bank,” he told the senators. “But we can’t balance the budget on the backs of our military alone.”
Mattis also made it clear that he will not seek to rollback policy changes that have allowed women to serve in combat and special operations jobs and have prohibited the dismissal of military members because of sexual orientation. “When people meet the standards, that’s the end of the conversation,” he said. When asked if gender should exclude members from some positions, he said, “I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military.” He also noted that, as a Marine general, he “put [women] on the front lines right alongside everyone else.”
On sexual orientation, he said “military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe.” He said he wants service members who can bring more “lethal force” to the military, and that he’s “never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.”
Mattis also showed a softer side on strategy toward the end of his hearing, veering from a basically realist performance to praise American influence around the world. “America has two fundamental powers,” he said. One is “intimidation,” by which he meant military force. The other is the “power of inspiration,” which he said has been used much less in the last 20 years.
Perhaps in his most clear attempt to pacify those who worry that his nomination strikes a blow at the American principle of civilian control over the military, Mattis urged, “we should not simply be turning to the military…to answer all of our concerns in our relations to the world.”