Retired general James Mattis clears hurdle to US defence secretary job

Retired General James Mattis

Former general James Mattis looks set to be confirmed as Donald Trump’s defence secretary after the Senate voted to grant him an exemption to run the Pentagon as a recently-retired officer.

At his confirmation hearing, he called Russia the nation’s number one security threat, accusing President Vladimir Putin of trying to “break” Nato.

The Senate voted 81-17 to approve legislation overriding a ban on former US service members who have been out of uniform less than seven years from holding the Defence Department’s top job.

The restriction is meant to preserve civilian control of the military. The House is scheduled to vote on Friday.

Mr Mattis, 66, spent four decades in uniform, retiring in 2013 with a reputation as an effective combat leader and an astute strategist.

Separate from the override legislation, the Senate will vote later on Mr Mattis’s nomination, which is seen as all but certain to be confirmed.

The only other exception to the rule was made for the legendary George Marshall in 1950, the year Mr Mattis was born.

Even some of Mr Trump’s strongest critics have supported the waiver for Mr Mattis, arguing that his experience and temperament can serve as a steadying influence on a new president with no experience in national security.

At an uncontentious confirmation hearing, Mr Mattis sketched an international security scene dominated by dark images of an aggressive Russia, resurgent China and violent Middle East.

He described Iran as a major destabilising force, called North Korea a potential nuclear threat and said the US military needs to grow larger and readier for combat.

“We see each day a world awash in change,” Mr Mattis said.

“Our country is still at war in Afghanistan and our troops are fighting against Isis and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts, and China is shredding trust along its periphery.”

Mr Mattis portrayed Russia as an adversary and said the history of US-Russian relations is not encouraging.

“I have very modest expectations for areas of cooperation with Mr Putin,” he said, delivering an assessment strikingly different to that of his potential commander in chief.

Mr Trump has repeatedly praised Mr Putin, even as US intelligence agencies have accused the Russian leader of orchestrating a campaign of interference in the 2016 US election.

Mr Mattis, a former Nato military leader, said Mr Putin “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance”.

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

Mr Mattis, who has served in numerous senior military positions, including commander of US Central Command in charge of all American forces in the Middle East, 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 US should remain open to working with Russia, Mr Mattis said the prospects for cooperation were narrowing even as areas of disagreement grow larger.

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