Trump introduces Mattis as Defense pick, lays out foreign policy doctrine

At a 'thank you' tour stop in North Carolina on Tuesday, the president-elect promised to get Congress to waive restrictions that would keep the recently retired general from serving as Defense secretary.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Gen. James Mattis, commander, US Central Command, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2013. President-elect Donald Trump says he will nominate the retired Marine general to lead the Defense Department.

President-elect Donald Trump introduced his choice for defense secretary, Ret. Gen. James Mattis, at a “thank you” rally in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg military base on Tuesday night, promising to secure congressional approval to waive restrictions on military appointments to the civilian post.

It came the same day as the unveiling of a stopgap spending bill from Republicans in Congress that would expedite the waiver process. The recently retired Mattis would otherwise be ineligible to serve as Defense secretary, as rules require former military leaders to be retired for at least seven years.

Appearing alongside Trump at the rally, Mattis said he would accept the post. "I look forward to being the civilian leader as long as the Congress gives me the waiver and the Senate votes to consent," Mattis told the crowd, according to the Associated Press. 

"We're going to get you that waiver," Trump said. "If you don't get that waiver there are going to be a lot of angry people."

Mattis’ introduction came on a night when Trump also laid out what sounded like a noninterventionist foreign policy, even while vowing to ramp up spending on what he described as a US military that had been stretched too thin. 

"We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn't be involved with," Trump said. "Instead, our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will."

Any nations that share these goals, he said, would be a US partner. "We don't forget. We want to strengthen old friendships and seek out new friendships," he said.

Trump’s warm remarks about Russia’s Vladimir Putin and hostility toward key trade partners China and Mexico – along with his threat to impose huge tariffs on imports – have suggested that he might revolutionize whom the US considers a “friend.”

Yet his noninterventionist tone, The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi noted in November, has led some foreign leaders and policy experts to see Trump’s ethos as a starker version of President Obama’s own doctrines.

[I]n some ways Mr. Obama provided the dress rehearsal to what many expect to be Mr. Trump’s more nationalist, America-first, and less interventionist foreign policy.

Obama is the president who labeled the United States’ NATO allies “free riders,” who focused on getting the US out of George W. Bush’s Middle East wars while staying out of new ones, and who honed an offshore counterterrorism warfare that avoids placing American boots on the ground....

That confluence of thinking does not mean Obama and Trump see eye-to-eye on every key foreign-policy issue. Trump threatens to tear up Obama’s signature Iran nuclear deal, while suggesting he can live with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – a leader Obama has said “must go.” But Trump’s administration could lead some foreign leaders to wonder if they’re just getting a starker form of a retreating America.

Trump pledged on Tuesday to lift caps on defense spending passed as part of a sequestration package that imposed across-the-board spending cuts.

"We don't want to have a depleted military because we're all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn't be fighting in,” he said. “It's not going to be depleted any longer.”

Democrats could still block Mattis’ waiver by filibuster, but several top members have expressed approval of the pick – at least relative to other Trump cabinet nominations. Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said at a Monitor Breakfast on Tuesday that were it not for the waiver issue, Mattis would have his “unequivocal support,” while Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who sits on that chamber’s Armed Services Committee, described the general as “very experienced,” adding that he thought “very positively of him,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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