WASHINGTON — President-elect Trump’s pick to lead the Defense Department told senators today that he wouldn’t come into the Pentagon with the intent of reversing Obama-era reforms allowing women in combat roles and gays to serve openly, and would wait to see if service chiefs come to him with “proven” problems with the policies.
“Can you address for this committee how committed you are going forward to having both men and women serve alongside each other when they are capable of doing the work for our country?” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked retired USMC Gen. James Mattis during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The standards are the standards. And when people meet the standards, then that’s the end of the discussion on that,” Mattis replied. “I would also add that what we’re talking about here is somewhere north of 15 percent of our force is made up of women. And the reason we’re able to maintain an all-volunteer force with very, very high recruiting standards is because we go to males and females. And that same application of those — that human capital has got to show that where they can best serve, that’s where they go.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked the general about a 2014 speech in which he said, “The idea of putting women in there is not setting them up for success. Could we find a woman who could run fast enough? Of course we could. Could we find a few who could do the pull-ups? Of course we could, that’s not the point. That’s not the point, at all. It’s whether or not you want to mix eros.”
And in 2015, when Mattis said in a speech: “When you mix eros, when you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don’t care if you go anywhere in history, you will not find where this has worked, never has it worked.”
Mattis, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, told the senator he “was not in a position to go back into government” when he made those statements.
“There are many policies that have been enacted over many years, including the years since I’ve been on active duty,” he said. “I’m coming in with the understanding that I lead the Department of Defense and if someone brings me a problem then I’ll look at it, but I’m not coming in looking for problems. I’m looking for a way to get the department so it’s at the most lethal stance.”
“Do you plan to oppose women serving in these combat roles?” Gillibrand asked.
“I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military. In 2003, I had hundreds of Marines who happened to be women, serving in my 23,000 person Marine division. And this is 10 years before I retired and I put them right into the front lines, alongside everyone else,” he replied.
“So you no longer believe that eros is a problem when men and women are serving together?” the senator continued.
“I believe that if we are going to do — execute policies like this, we had better train our leaders so they could handle all things that come from a policy that decided this talent,” Mattis said. “That’s our responsibility, to train our young leaders who are going to be dealing with factors that perhaps, their fathers did not have to deal with.”
Gillibrand then asked about a passage in Mattis’ book in which he pans political leaders imposing “an excretion of social conventions that are diminishing the combat power of our military.”
“Do you believe that openly serving homosexuals along with women in combat units is undermining our force?” she asked.
“Senator, my belief is that we have to stay focused on a military that’s so lethal that on the battle field it will be the enemy’s longest day and their worst day when they run into that force,” Mattis responded. “I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe.”
He added that “unless a service chief brings something to me where there’s been a problem that’s been proven, then I’m not going in with a idea that I’m going to review these and right away start rolling something back.”
Asked if LGBT service members undermine the lethality of the force, the general replied, “Thankfully, Senator, I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) followed up by asking Mattis if there’s “something innate in being a woman or LGBT that would cause you to believe that they could not be part of a lethal force.”
“No,” he replied.
Mattis stressed to the committee that he was “not involved in the presidential campaign” and “certainly not seeking or envisioning a position in any new administration,” but “it would be the highest honor if I am confirmed to lead those who volunteer to support and defend the constitution and to defend our people.”
Asked by chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) if the U.S. should ignore the lessons of history when it comes to dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the general replied that “history is not a straitjacket, but I’ve never found a better guide for the way ahead than studying the histories.”
“Since Yalta, we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard,” Mattis said. “And I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with — Mr. Putin — and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps — the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military, and the alliance steps, the working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.”
He asserted that world order is “under the biggest attack since World War II…and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea.”
As “deterrence is critical right now,” that “requires the strongest military” — something Mattis says the United States currently does not have.
Mattis appeared unwilling to scrap the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. “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.”
“I think to publicly display what Iran is up to with their surrogates and proxies, their terrorist units that they support, to recognize the ballistic missile threat, to deal with their maritime threat and to publicly make clear to everyone what they’re doing in the cyber realm, all helps to constrain Iran,” he added.
The general told the committee he has a “very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community,” and that he wouldn’t have accepted the job offer if he “didn’t believe the president-elect would also be open to my input” on matters.
“I’m all for engagement but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to, and there’s decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”
U.S. Code says “a person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force”; Mattis retired in 2013.
Today the Senate passed 81-17 a waiver allowing Mattis to serve as Pentagon chief. The waiver also passed the House Armed Services Committee.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders,” said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “That is why the committee approved the exception that allows General Mattis to serve as secretary of Defense. Ensuring there is no gap in the office is important to the safety and security of the United States.”