Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on Thursday pledged to bolster the U.S. military and build the "strongest alliances possible" should he be confirmed as secretary of defense.
Mattis, who faced a three-hour hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, underlined his commitment to ending sequestration, strengthening the readiness of the American armed forces, and providing "strong civilian leadership" of the Pentagon.
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The retired four-star general also underscored the need to "recognize the reality" of Russia's aggression in eastern Europe and cyber space and develop new, more comprehensive strategies to protect America's European allies, root out the Islamic State from the Middle East, and stop China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
Mattis stressed the importance of America's alliances, including NATO and partnerships with countries in the Asia-Pacific, to deter aggressive behavior from Russia and China.
Responding to questions from committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Mattis warned of Russia's desire to "break" NATO and indicated that cooperation with Russia is increasingly unlikely.
"Right now, the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with [in] [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance and that we take the integrated steps—diplomatic, economic, military, and the alliance steps, working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must," Mattis said.
The hearing took place less than a week after the release of an unclassified U.S. intelligence community report showing that Russia engaged in a multi-faceted cyber and disinformation campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election, with the aim of undermining American democracy and damaging Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mattis outlined the myriad of global security challenges facing the United States in his opening remarks, underlining his commitment to rebuilding the armed forces and working with U.S. allies to ensure stability worldwide. The current strength of the U.S. military, he said, is not able to deter the country's potential adversaries.
"We see each day a world awash in change; 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," Mattis said. "Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts and China is shredding trust along its periphery. Increasingly, we see islands of stability in our hemisphere, democracies in Europe, and in Asia under attack by non-state actors and nations that mistakenly see their security in the insecurity of others."
"My priorities as secretary of defense will be to strengthen military readiness, strengthen our alliances, and bring business reforms to the Department of Defense," the retired general said.
Mattis faced numerous questions on current defense operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as on policy matters at the Defense Department. He was grilled on Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. alliance with Israel, and North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. He was also questioned on the defense budget, acquisitions reform, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the nuclear deterrent, women in combat, military sexual assault prevention, and cyber security.
One hurdle stands in the way of President-elect Donald Trump's choice to lead the Defense Department. Mattis, who has been out of uniform for only three years, needs a congressional waiver in order to serve as defense secretary in the Trump administration. By law, military personnel need to be separated from the military for seven years or more in order to serve as defense secretary.
Immediately following Thursday's hearing, the Senate committee approved a bill allowing Mattis to serve in the top Pentagon post in a 24-3 vote. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) were the lone "nay" votes on the committee.
The waiver will need to clear a 60-vote threshold in the Senate to pass. The House Armed Services Committee will mark up the legislation Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers are hopeful that the expedited consideration of the legislation will allow for Mattis' confirmation as soon as Trump takes office.
Two leading defense experts recommended earlier this week that Congress create an exception for Mattis to serve, referencing his judgment, character, and clear grasp of the importance of civilian control of the military. Congress has only made such an allowance once before, allowing Gen. George Marshall to serve as secretary of defense in the 1950s.
Republicans and many Democrats have communicated their support for Mattis, though at least two Democrats—Gillibrand and former Marine Rep. Ruben Gallego of Ohio—vowed to oppose the waiver over the need for civilian control of the military.
Mattis served 41 years in the Marine Corps, most recently heading the U.S. Central Command between 2010 and 2013 during the Obama administration.
Mattis has received praise from a number of lawmakers and current and former defense officials, including current Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former defense secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates. He was introduced on Thursday by Sen. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) and former Clinton defense secretary William Cohen, both of whom endorsed the granting of a waiver to allow for Mattis' appointment.
"Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition," Mattis said on Thursday. "If the Senate consents and if the full Congress passes an exception to the seven-year requirement, I will provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions and the Department of Defense."
The hearing on Mattis' confirmation was one of many taking place Thursday for members of Trump's cabinet, after two long days of hearings in which lawmakers questioned the president-elect's choices for attorney general, secretary of state, and other posts.
Trump first announced "Mad Dog" Mattis as his choice for defense secretary in early December, cheering him as "one of the most effective generals that we have had in many, many decades."