UPDATE — 1/14, 10:13 a.m. EST: The U.S. House on Friday followed the Senate’s lead from the previous day, voting 268–151 to grant a waiver to Marine Gen. James Mattis which will allow the retired Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Federal law stipulates that former military personnel must wait a minimum of seven years after their retirement date before they are eligible to head the Pentagon.
A White House spokesperson indicated that President Obama will sign the waiver rather than leave it for the incoming-president to endorse, but House Democrats say they are disappointed the defense secretary nominee didn’t testify in front of the lower chamber’s Armed Services Committee.
After glowing introductions of support from former Sens. Sam Nunn and William Cohen, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Defense Department, embarked on a day of confirmation testimony, often revealing positions in contrast to the New York businessman he will serve.
During his opening statement Thursday, Mattis announced to the Senate Committee on Armed Services his role at the Pentagon would be to allow the State Department to conduct foreign policy from a “position of strength” in order to avert conflict in a world filled with growing threats.
“I will work to make sure our strategy and military calculus are employed to reinforce traditional tools of diplomacy, ensuring our president and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength,” Mattis stated in his opening statement.
Despite an emerging friendship with President-elect Trump, Mattis advanced views which often contrasted sharply with the incoming president.
Breaking with Trump, Mattis tethered Russia and Iran together, describing the two nations as similar threats, but left the door open to rapprochement with the Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Defining Russia as a state intent on breaking up NATO, Mattis emphasized harnessing military, economic and diplomatic steps to defend ourselves, but included the possibility of cooperation with Mr. Putin.
“I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to. There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia,” Mattis said.
On Iran, Mattis again illustrated flexibility, but indicated his view the Iran nuclear deal was carelessly agreed upon. Trump, has stated he intends to “rip up” President Obama’s landmark nuclear pact; however, Mattis demonstrated a fidelity to America’s word when outlining his position on the rogue state, portraying Iran as a “destabilizing” force in the region.
“It’s not a deal I would have signed, sir, but the U.S. is now committed with its allies to the deal and must abide by it,” he responded to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Mattis followed with his commitment to enhance intelligence-gathering to verify Iran is abiding by the pact.
Addressing North Korea and the Islamic State (ISIS), Mattis told the panel of his support for defeating ISIS, but added his concern the current strategy is flawed and his desire to see an intensification of combat action against the militant group.
Mattis followed with a vague reference to nation building when he stated his fear for Iraq after the destruction of ISIS remains the potential for political instability and sectarian violence. Mattis’ remedy was to drive a wedge between Iran and its attempts to subjugate its Iraqi neighbor and to remain engaged in Iraq to promote a sound political climate.
Similarly, on North Korea, Mattis stressed the importance of engaging regional allies and both Russia and China to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Later, while under scrutiny from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mattis gave reassurances he has no intention to end current policies which allow women to serve in combat roles.
Despite surviving cross-examination from the committee panel, Mattis’ greatest victory to pave his way to the Pentagon was an 81 to 17 vote in Congress’ upper chamber granting him a waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Granted only once prior for General George C. Marshall, the waiver is the legal requirement retired military personnel must be retired from active military duty more than seven years before serving as head of the Pentagon. The vote required 60 “yeas” for an exemption.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) broke with Ms. Gillibrand in favor of granting the waiver. Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren joined Gillibrand in voting against the waiver.
[Reuters] [UPI] [Photo courtesy Getty Images/Mandel Ngan via Newsday]