WASHINGTON (CN) – Facing mild questions at a Senate hearing to confirm his nomination as defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis worked Thursday to assuage NATO allies worried about Moscow's threat to break the post-World War II North Atlantic alliance.
During the first round of questioning before Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Mattis said the Russian threat requires the United States to partner with NATO allies.
Calling the alliance "vital" to U.S. national interests and security, Mattis said if NATO did not exist today it would need to be created.
Those words surely pleased McCain and his South Carolina colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham. The two Republican senators recently toured Ukraine and the Baltic states in Eastern Europe to provide reassurance that the U.S. will remain committed to their defense in the face of Russian aggression under NATO's collective defense article.
This morning’s testimony could, however, put Mattis at odds with his future boss.
President-elect Donald Trump had criticized NATO allies on the campaign trail, saying some were getting a "free ride" and should contribute more to the alliance for American defense.
Trump has also consistently expressed an intent to work more closely with Moscow, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Mattis, who retired from the Marines in 2013, emphasized the importance of being realistic about what Russian President Vladimir Putin means for the United States.
Though the general said he supports Trump’s plan to engage with Putin, he said he has "modest expectations" on potential areas of engagement.
Republicans on the committee were not the only ones who found common ground with Mattis during three hours of testimony.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Democratic ranking member of the committee, questioned Mattis on President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
Mattis offered support for the deal, despite having voiced more hawkish views on the dangers posed by the Middle Eastern power.
“I think it is an imperfect arms-control agreement, it’s not a friendship treaty,” he said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
Later, Mattis said the U.S. needs fully staffed intelligence services to monitor Iran for possible violations of the deal. He also said the Gulf States - U.S. allies in the region - need an air-missile defense system to protect against Iranian missiles.
And when Iran misbehaves by stoking terrorism, Mattis said the U.S. should take it to the United Natins and "display it for the world to see.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Israel hawk, asked Mattis during a rapid-fire round of questioning if he would support moving the U.S. Embassy in Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that President-elect Trump supports.
Such a move would spark the ire of Palestinians who want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, even though most Israelis view Jerusalem as their capitol.
The status of the holy city has been a focal point of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis since Israel seized it by force, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, during the Six Day War in 1967. The UN, along with most of its member states – including the U.S. - do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital because of that, and generally locate their embassies in Tel-Aviv.
The issue re-emerged with a vengeance in Congress after the U.S. abstained from a UN Security Council vote last month that condemned Israeli settlements. President-elect Trump and bipartisan pro-Israel hawks in Congress view the move as a betrayal of a long-standing U.S. ally in the region.
When Graham asked Mattis what city he visits when he travels to the capital of Israel, Mattis said he follows longstanding U.S. policy on the matter – he described Tel-Aviv, not Jerusalem, as Israel's capital.
During earlier testimony, Mattis told Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, that the U.S. needs to "restore" its relationship with Israel and Arab allies in the region who "sense our indifference" to their regional struggles.
Ultmately, however, the U.S. needs to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Mattis said.
Mattis also touched on some other hot-button items during his testimony.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, asked Mattis if he opposes women serving in all combat roles, and whether he thinks LGBT service members are undermining U.S. forces.
Mattis said he has no plans to oppose women serving in any U.S. military role and would not - unless presented with evidence - think about entering the Pentagon with plans to reinstate "don't ask, don't tell."
The Clinton-era policy prevented gay men and lesbians from openly serving in the military, and critics say it institutionalized discrimination.
"Frankly, I've never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with," Mattis said.
The U.S. should focus on building a military so lethal, that it will be our enemy's “longest day and worst day” when they run into that force, he said.
Mattis also promised to work with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of New York on dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder in the military.
"You have my full commitment on this," Mattis said.
Immediately after the hearing, the committee voted 24-3 in favor of a waiver to allow a one-time exception to the 1947 National Security Act, which requires the defense secretary to be a civilian removed from military service for at least seven years.
Since Mattis retired in 2013, he would be ineligible under the law for three more years.
Only three Democrats - Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthl and Kirsten Gillibrand - voted no.
Mattis is expected to be confirmed.
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