President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for defense secretary, Gen. James N. Mattis, has told Congress that Iran is the “biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East” and that the United States needs to forge a strategy to “checkmate Iran’s goal for regional hegemony.”
The retired Marine general provided his written responses on an array of policy questions to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is meeting Thursday morning to take up his nomination for defense secretary, as well as to consider the legal waiver that would be needed so that he could serve in the Pentagon’s top civilian job.
His responses, contained in a 56-page document that was provided to The New York Times, cover everything from military strategy to personnel policy. The document is intended to serve as a guide to lawmakers who will be questioning General Mattis, and it will become part of the permanent hearing record.
Here are some highlights.
General Mattis did not say how many American troops should be kept in Iraq, but he asserted that the United States needed to maintain its influence there long after Mosul was captured from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Our principal interest in Iraq is to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran,” he wrote. “It will be essential to fold any efforts in Iraq following ISIS’s defeat in Mosul into an integrated regional strategy.”
General Mattis did not offer a solution for the conflict in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands. But he described the fighting as a major threat to American national security interests, offering a more alarming view of the crisis than the Obama administration. “The brutal civil war in Syria has destabilized the Middle East, contributed to the destabilization of Europe and threatened allies like Israel, Jordan and Turkey, all while ISIS, Iran and Russia have profited from the chaos — none of which has been in America’s national interest,” he wrote.
General Mattis said he supported Mr. Trump’s “desire to engage” with Russia, yet providing a vivid catalog of the potential dangers. “Challenges posed by Russia include alarming messages from Moscow regarding the use of nuclear weapons; treaty violations; the use of hybrid warfare tactics to destabilize other countries; and involvement in hacking and information warfare,” he wrote.
He said the alliance “enormously” benefits American security. “The alliance must harness renewed political will to confront and walk back aggressive Russian actions,” said General Mattis, who added that it was also important for NATO members to meet their military spending goals.
General Mattis said he opposed military exchanges or security cooperation with Raúl Castro’s Cuba.
General Mattis did not say what American troop levels should be in Afghanistan, but he indicated that he saw the country as important to American interests. “We all remember what it felt like on 9/11 and 9/12,” he wrote. “We should do what is necessary to prevent such an attack from occurring again.”
While the Obama administration has held out hope for better relations with Tehran, General Mattis said he saw Iran as an increasing threat. “Iranian malign influence in the region is growing,” he wrote.
Women in the Military
General Mattis sidestepped the question of whether all combat positions, including ground combat, should be open to women, as Ashton B. Carter, the departing defense secretary, announced in 2015. “I believe that Secretary Carter appropriately carried out his duties,” General Mattis wrote. “I have not personally reviewed the data and analysis that Secretary Carter had available to him before he made a decision on this issue. For that reason, I cannot characterize whether the review was adequate.”
Civilian Control of the Military
General Mattis promised to uphold the principle of civilian control if confirmed. “Having demonstrated 40 years of loyalty to the principle of civilian control and to the U.S. Constitution, I know what to expect from the uniformed leadership,” he wrote. “Furthermore, I understand what is required of the civilians tasked with leading our military services.