(Adds McCain, Mattis remarks)
By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON Jan 12 President-elect Donald
Trump's pick to lead the Pentagon told Congress on Thursday the
United States must be ready to confront Russian behavior in
areas where the two countries cannot cooperate, even as he
backed Trump's bid to engage with Moscow.
The remarks by retired Marine General James Mattis in
written responses to questions from Congress appeared set to
endear him to Russia-wary Republicans and Democrats on the
Senate Armed Services Committee, which is expected to back his
"We engaged with Russia even during the darkest days of the
Cold War, and I support the President-elect's desire to engage
with Russia now," Mattis wrote.
"At the same time, when we identify other areas where we
cannot cooperate, we must confront Russia's behavior, and defend
ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to our interests."
Due to enter the White House in eight days, Trump on
Wednesday acknowledged that Russia likely hacked the Democratic
National Committee and emails of top Democrats during the 2016
presidential election campaign, a conclusion reached by U.S. spy
Mattis cited Russian involvement in hacking and information
warfare among the challenges posed by Moscow. Others include
treaty violations, using tactics short of open war to
destabilize other countries and "alarming messages from Moscow
regarding the use of nuclear weapons," he wrote.
Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the
committee, said he "could not be happier" about Mattis'
nomination. He warned sternly against optimism about engaging
with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Putin wants to be our enemy. He needs us as his enemy. He
will never be our partner," McCain exclaimed in his opening
"He believes that strengthening Russia means weakening
America. We must proceed realistically on this basis."
Mattis, who retired from the military in 2013, is
technically ineligible for the job since he has not been a
civilian for at least seven years. That means Congress would
need to grant him a waiver, something it has not done since
1950, but appears inclined to do now.
In his opening statement, Mattis said he can lead the
military as a civilian, even after a 44-year military career.
"I recognize my potential civilian role differs in essence
and in substance from my former role in uniform," Mattis said..
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies, said he expected bipartisan support
for Mattis would help him overcome that hurdle.
"The other thing he has going for him is that he may be a
restraint on some of Trump's more extreme impulses," Cancian
said. "The concern that people would have is OK, you vote down
Mattis, who do you get?"
Senators are expected to ask Mattis how he would grapple
with Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
Officials who knew him before he retired in 2013 said Mattis
clashed with top Obama administration officials when he headed
the military's Central Command over his desire to better prepare
for potential threats from Tehran.
"Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is
the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its
policies are contrary to our interests," Mattis said in his
On Iraq, Mattis said the main goal should be to ensure "that
it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran."
Mattis, 66, has tried to persuade Trump privately against
the use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, as an
interrogation tactic. Top U.S. officials, many lawmakers and
human rights groups have denounced waterboarding as torture.
Mattis also voiced support for strong international
alliances in his remarks and said the NATO alliance was central
to America's defense.
"History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and
those without them wither," he said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and
Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)