Putin trying to ‘break’ NATO, says James Mattis, Trump’s Pentagon pick

Watch the full the confirmation hearing for retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense. Video by PBS NewsHour

WASHINGTON — Retired Gen. James Mattis, poised to become the first career military officer to lead the Pentagon since the 1950s, said Thursday he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to “break” the NATO alliance that has anchored American and European security for more than half a century.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Mattis portrayed Russia as a strategic adversary and placed it at No. 1 on his list of security threats. He said the history of U.S.-Russian relations is short on successful efforts at lasting cooperation, something President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to pursue.

Mattis said he agrees with thrust of Trump’s plan to increase the size of the U.S. military, but their views on Russia appeared at odds. Trump has repeatedly emphasized his hope for good relations with Putin, even as U.S. intelligence agencies have accused the Russian leader of orchestrating a campaign of interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Of Putin, said Mattis, a former NATO military leader: “He is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”

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He said he has explained to Trump his views on Russia, which include a deep worry that Moscow is determined to create a sphere of unstable states on its periphery through intimidation.

Mattis said he supports the Obama administration’s moves to reassure European allies after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and military activity in eastern Ukraine. While the U.S. should remain open to working with Russia, Mattis said, the prospects for cooperation are narrowing.

The context was clear. As Mattis spoke, Trump’s choice to run the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, sided with intelligence officials who claim the Kremlin was behind the election cyberattacks, adopting a similarly tough stand against Russia. Ties between the former Cold War foes also have been strained by Syria’s civil war.

Mattis appeared to be cruising toward confirmation. He faced no hostile questions from Republicans or Democrats, receiving bipartisan praise for his reputation as a straight-talking, well-read man of integrity and intelligence.

“How about Mr. Secretary?” Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked him half-jokingly.

William Cohen, a defense secretary for Democratic President Bill Clinton, introduced Mattis as a “humble man with very little to be humble about.”

“He’s a man of thought as well as action,” Cohen said.

Mattis said the world order was under “the biggest attack since World War II,” blaming Russia, China and international terrorist organizations for its destabilization.

Asked by Sen. John McCain, the Armed Services Committee’s Republican chairman, if the U.S. military was ready to confront these challenges, Mattis replied: “No, sir.”

On cyberattacks, Mattis noted that wars often are started by miscalculation. He said the U.S. needs to set clear boundaries so that adversaries know what the U.S. will not tolerate.

A former top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Mattis said he believes Washington must “restore a better relationship” with Israel and Arab partners. Still, he declined to embrace the common Republican assertion that President Barack Obama allowed Israel’s military edge over its regional foes to erode.

Video by PBS NewsHour

In prepared testimony, Mattis said he understands his role as the Defense Department’s civilian leader would be different “in essence and in substance” from his four decades in uniform.

“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,” Mattis said. He called civilian control “a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition.”

Mattis, 66, retired in 2013 after serving as commander of U.S. Central Command in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.

He is known for having strong views on Iran. Mattis sees Tehran as a menace in the Middle East, and would work for a president who has pledged to toughen U.S. policy toward Iran. That could have broad implications as the incoming administration weighs modifying the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reconfiguring American posture in the Middle East after complaints from U.S. allies that Obama yielded too much ground to Tehran.

The last career military officer to serve as defense secretary was George Marshall in 1950-51.

Before Mattis can join the Cabinet, Congress must approve a one-time exception to a law requiring a military officer to be out of uniform for at least seven years before leading the Pentagon. Even some of Trump’s strongest critics say Mattis merits the exception.

Associated Press reporter Robert Burns wrote this story.

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