US must be ready to confront Russia, Trump nominee says

President-elect’s picks to lead the CIA and Pentagon face confirmation hearings

Retired general James Mattis appears before a Senate armed services committee hearing on his nomination to serve as US defence secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Retired general James Mattis appears before a Senate armed services committee hearing on his nomination to serve as US defence secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin is trying to break the north Atlantic alliance and his policies represent one of the key threats to the global order that has prevailed since the second World War, James Mattis, the retired general nominated by US president-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of defence, has told a Senate committee.

In testimony that struck a notably harder line on Russia than that of Mr Trump, Mr Mattis said the US should be willing to engage with Moscow but that there was a decreasing number of areas where it was possible to co-operate and an increasing number where it would be necessary to confront Russia.

“Right now, the most important thing is we recognise the reality of what we deal with with Mr Putin, and we recognise 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,” said Mr Mattis.

Mr Mattis’s words came during his confirmation hearing before the Senate armed services committee.

His comments contrasted sharply with the repeated praise Mr Trump has had for Mr Putin.

Questioned on the issue by Republican senator John McCain, Mr Mattis said the postwar order was “under the biggest attack since the second World War”, with threats from Russia, terrorist groups and China’s activities in the South China Sea .

Pressed by Mr McCain on the threat to the Baltic states posed by Russia, Mr Mattis suggested he supported the idea of a permanent US military presence there.

The US must continue to embrace its international alliances, Mr Mattis said, arguing that “nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither”.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump for the first time acknowledged that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the last US presidential election, but he has continued to downplay the gravity of the attacks.

Mr Trump has also said he wants to forge closer relations with Russia.

On Thursday, Mr Mattis said he was “all for engagement” and that relations had been possible during the worst years of the Cold War.

However, he said it was also necessary to recognise what Russia was up to. He said Russia posed “grave concerns” on a number of fronts.

The blunt-speaking former general, known as “Mad Dog” Mattis, is regarded in military circles as a top intellectual and one of the Pentagon’s most forward-thinking strategists.

He is also seen on both sides of the aisle as a potential restraining influence on Mr Trump.

The president-elect has himself said conversations with Mr Mattis had prompted him to reconsider his previous pledges to revive the use of waterboarding in interrogations.

Mike Pompeo

In a separate hearing, the man nominated to become head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, said the CIA will “absolutely not” resume using banned interrogation techniques such as waterboarding if Mr Trump orders it to do so.

Mr Pompeo promised to only employ methods permitted by the US Army field manual, which forbids the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The former army officer, who has previously supported harsh interrogation approaches, told his confirmation hearing that the agency could return to such controversial techniques only if Congress acted to change the law in this regard.

Mr Pompeo (53), a four-term congressman from Kansas, promised to leave behind his reputation as a fierce Republican partisan and become an even-handed source of information if confirmed.

He also endorsed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking of Democratic Party computers last year.

“I think it’s pretty clear what took place,” he said.

The CIA nominee, who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, told the panel that the “Iranians are professionals at cheating” and have gone on a “rampage” in the Middle East over the past year.

He cited Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, harassment of US Navy warships in the Gulf and continued holding of American prisoners.

Mr Pompeo is expected to be confirmed.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017