Mattis backs women in combat, NATO alliance

Retired Gen. James Mattis listens to opening statements during his secretary of defense confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2017.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 12, 2017

WASHINGTON — Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis told the Senate on Thursday that he has no plans to review policies allowing women to serve in combat roles if he is confirmed as defense secretary.

Mattis, 66, was grilled by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing about his past comments that questioned whether integrated military service could be successful. The retired general said Thursday that he would follow the Pentagon policy changes made in December 2015 that allow women into combat occupational specialties, after years of front-line duty in other positions.

“I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” Mattis said.

President-elect Donald Trump, who picked Mattis last month as his defense secretary, has suggested he might press the Pentagon to abandon combat integration after his repeated criticism of “political correctness” harming the military.

The Armed Services Committee on Thursday voted to give Mattis, who retired in 2013, a rare exemption from law that requires any defense secretary to be out of the military for at least seven years. The full Senate was expected to vote this month on his confirmation and clear the way for Mattis to take over the Pentagon when Trump takes office Jan. 20.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., questioned Mattis about his 2015 comment that mixing men and women in combat could create sexual desires and has not been successful at any time in history.

“Have you changed your view on this issue?” said Gillibrand, who had threatened to oppose the needed waiver that will allow Mattis to be confirmed.

Mattis said he was retired and not planning to return to government service when he made the comments, and that he would follow policy changes that have been made if confirmed.

“If someone brings me a problem, I will look at it but I am not coming in looking for problems,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mattis said he supports the “strongest possible relationship” with the NATO alliance. That appeared to distance him from Trump, who has suggested the agreement with Europe allies might be outdated and the United States might not come to the aid of member states if they do not contribute enough money to defense.

“NATO from my perspective, and I served once as the NATO alliance supreme allied commander, is the most successful military alliance in modern world history, maybe ever,” Mattis said.

The general could be the first career military officer to lead the Pentagon in about 70 years if he is approved this month by the full Senate.

Mattis, who is known for his intellect, colorful quotes and willingness to speak truth to power, had a four-decade career in the Marine Corps leading infantry troops in multiple wars and last served as commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.

But Mattis recent military service requires Congress pass an exemption to law designed to ensure civilians maintain control of the armed forces. The issue of civilian control has roiled some Democrats, who fear a waiver could erode what is a bedrock principle of U.S. government.

The only other exemption granted since the creation of the Defense Department was given in the early 1950s to Gen. George Marshall, who served as the Army chief of staff during World War II and was an architect of postwar reconstruction in Europe.

The full Senate was set for a possible vote on the waiver Thursday afternoon and the House was also slated to begin its consideration.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Retired Gen. James Mattis talks with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., before Mattis's secretary of defense confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 12, 2017.