Incoming secretary of defence James Mattis takes aim at Russia, unlike future boss Donald Trump

James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for US defense secretary, on Thursday accused Russia of trying to break up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and said the United States needs to stand up to its old foe.

The retired Marine Corps general's stinging criticism of Russia stands in sharp contrast to the views of his future boss. Trump has repeatedly praised the leadership qualities of its "very smart" President Vladimir Putin and advocated closer ties.

Mattis told his confirmation hearing that he believed the modern world order was under the biggest attack since the Second World War. "And that's from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

His testimony came a day after Trump's pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson, said he too would take a firm line with Moscow.

Mattis noted that, like Trump, he was open to greater engagement with Russia, but stressed he only had "very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Putin".

 Incoming secretary of defence James Mattis takes aim at Russia, unlike future boss Donald Trump

Donald Trump and James Mattis. AFP

"I'm all for engagement, but we also have to recognise reality and what Russia is up to," he said, adding, "There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia."

US intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the US Presidential Election 2016 to help Trump, and an explosive — but unverified — dossier published this week alleged Moscow had longtime ties to senior Trump advisors.

Mattis said Putin was working to undermine Nato, and he called the alliance "vital" for American interests noting that if the US did not have Nato, it would have needed to create it.

"Right now, the most important thing is that we recognise the reality of what we deal with Putin, and we recognise that he is trying to break the Nato," Mattis said.

China 'shredding' trust

With regard to China, which has a rapidly growing military, Mattis said it is "shredding trust along its periphery" as it builds up its military presence in the South China Sea.

In written testimony, he said America "must try to engage and collaborate with China where possible, but also be prepared to confront inappropriate behaviour if China chooses to act contrary to our interests".

Trump has frequently spoken out against China's trade policies and ruffled feathers in Beijing when he took a call from Taiwan's leader after the election.

Mattis sailed through the three-hour hearing with broad support, despite some senators expressing reservations that his appointment runs counter to decades of Pentagon tradition — and US legal custom.

A cornerstone of US democracy is that civilians, not people in uniform, control the military, and the commander-in-chief is the president.

US law prohibits officers from serving as defense secretary for seven years after leaving active duty — but Mattis only hung up his uniform in 2013.

Need integrated strategy on Islamic State

Mattis called for combating the Islamic State through an "integrated strategy" that goes after the terror group's recruiting and fund-raising besides delivering a military blow to them in the Middle East.

"I think we have to deliberate a very hard blow against IS in the Middle East, so that there is no sense of invulnerability or invincibility there. There has got to be a military defeat of them there, but there must be a much broader approach," Mattis said.

"This requires an integrated strategy so you don't squeeze them in one place and they develop in another and we are really right back to square one," he said.

Mattis was responding to a question from Senator Joni Ernest, who said that the Middle East region will inevitably remain a major focal point when talking about "Islamic extremism".

"However, I do believe that we need to look at other regions around the globe and we cannot turn a blind eye to IS in regions outside of the Middle East such as in Southeast Asia," he said.

US-Pakistan relations have highs and lows

Mattis said that Pakistan should take more actions against Taliban and the Haqqani network so as to "expel or neutralise" externally- focused militant groups operating within its border.

"If confirmed, I will work with the State Department and the Congress to incentivise Pakistan's co-operation on issues critical to our national interests and the region's security, with focus on Pakistan's need to expel or neutralise externally-focused militant groups that operate within its borders," said Mattis.

In his written written submission to the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of his confirmation hearing, Mattis noted that "conditioning our security assistance" to Pakistan has a mixed history, "but I will review all option".

The retired general told lawmakers that Pakistan has "learned some hard lessons" because of its dealings with the Afghan Taliban, as violence in that country reflects.

"I believe they should do more to collaborate with their neighbour. We should urge Pakistan to take further actions against the Taliban and the Haqqani network," Mattis said.

Arguing that countries in the region "have the responsibility to support the reconciliation process" in Afghanistan, Mattis said the countries in the region "should increase pressure on the Afghan Taliban and associated militant networks" to stop their campaigns of violence.

He said that US' ties with Pakistan have had highs and lows.

Waiver granted

The 66-year-old Washington state native needs a special Congressional waiver — only granted once before, for the famous World War II General George Marshall who served under President Harry Truman from 1950-1951.

The Senate voted by a large majority to grant one, and the House Armed Services Committee also approved the measure, clearing the way for a full confirmation vote. Politicians across the spectrum lauded Mattis, and his appointment appears to be a formality.

However, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said he would vote against the waiver for fear of setting a precedent. But even he declared: "Let me say that very bluntly, if ever there were a case for a waiver of that principle, it is you at this moment in our history."

"Your appreciation for the costs of war in blood, treasure and lives and the impact on veterans afterwards will enable you to be a check on rash and potentially ill-considered use of military force by a president-elect who perhaps lacks that same appreciation."

A colourful commander famed for his pugnacious aphorisms, the media dubbed Mattis "Mad Dog" for his battle-hardened swagger and the sort of blunt language Marines are famous for.

He has been quoted as saying, "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

But Mattis also has a well-known cerebral side: he issued reading lists to Marines under his command, and instructed them that the most important territory on a battlefield is the space "between your ears".

Mattis would replace technocrat Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's fourth Pentagon chief.

Senators also grilled Mattis over a slew of security issues, including North Korea's nuclear ambitions, women in combat and budget constraints.

Trump has said his administration "will begin a major national effort to rebuild our badly depleted military".

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 16:19:21 IST