James 'Mad Dog' Mattis calls Russia 'adversary,' claims confidence in intelligence community

WASHINGTON, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Donald Trump's pick to lead the Pentagon put Russia at the top of a list of threats to U.S. interests on Thursday and told Congress that America must be ready to confront Moscow where necessary, even as he backed Trump's bid for better relations.

The remarks by retired Marine General James Mattis were the latest by one of Trump's Cabinet picks that veered away from the president-elect's campaign rhetoric, which included praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and pledges to improve ties with him.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday also expressed views at odds with Trump on key foreign policy issues like nuclear proliferation, trade deals, climate change and relations with Mexico.

RELATED: 19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis

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19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis
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19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis

"You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it's going to be bad."

Mattis has often talked to Marine leaders about staying sharp.

The "dream world" he mentioned is a reference to a complacent attitude, and it's one that can cost lives if troops aren't vigilant.

(Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

"If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don't take the shot. Don't create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act."

As a coauthor of the military's counterinsurgency manual (with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus), Mattis has often spoken about following the rules of engagement and being disciplined against a ruthless enemy.

REUTERS/Mike Blake 

"I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f*** with me, I'll kill you all."

After the initial Iraq invasion, "Chaos" (his radio call sign) sent home his tanks and artillery and used the "carrot and the stick" with Iraqi tribal leaders.

 (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some a--holes in the world that just need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim."

Addressing his Marines at an air base in Iraq, he tried to motivate them to stay sharp and continue the mission.

He ended the speech, telling them in Patton-esque fashion, "I feel sorry for every son of a b**** that doesn't get to serve with you."

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

"Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

One of his "words to live by" for his Marines in Iraq, which was a call for his troops to remain vigilant and never let their guard down even in the company of those who seem friendly.

In a country where insurgents would blend into the local populace with ease, it was good advice.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

"We've backed off in good faith to try and give you a chance to straighten this problem out. But I am going to beg with you for a minute. I'm going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years."

Mattis demonstrates that he is willing to extend an olive branch to those on the fence — while carrying the weight of Marine firepower if that doesn't work out.

This quote is often shared among Mattis fans for its almost Spartan-like delivery.

 ( CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)

"I don't lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word."

The general has always been confident in his abilities and that of his Marines.

He led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade into Afghanistan in 2001 and the 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, and he led an operation into Fallujah in 2004 dubbed "Operation Vigilant Resolve." He also helped to plan the later "Operation Phantom Fury."

His success in battle and strategic genius has earned him an almost godlike status among Marines.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 "A country that armed Stalin to defeat Hitler can certainly work alongside enemies of Al Qaeda to defeat Al Qaeda."

The general is a student of history and an avid reader.

He often stresses the importance of education and training on building effective future leaders.

 (Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for DIRECTV)

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling."

Some Mattis quotes don't come without a degree of controversy, including this one.

Mattis said this while speaking about his time on the ground in Afghanistan, but he was later counseled by his boss, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, who said "he should have chosen his words more carefully."

REUTERS/Gary Cameron 

 "In this age, I don't care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony — even vicious harmony — on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete. We have got to have officers who can create harmony across all those lines."

Mattis wants educated leaders who can both be book smart and be able to get the job done.

REUTERS/Jim Hollander CLH/

"Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment (in American democracy) and kill every one of them until they're so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact."

Mattis believes the battlefield is better off being far from American shores.

(Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

 

"Treachery has existed as long as there's been warfare, and there's always been a few people that you couldn't trust."

In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, alliances can often shift quickly.

Mattis spoke with Congress on this point after a series of so-called green-on-blue attacks that left military leaders struggling to find a solution.

 (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)

 "Fight with a happy heart."

Before heading into Iraq in 2003, all Marines of the 1st Marine Division received a letter from General Mattis.

In the letter, he spoke candidly to his troops, telling them "we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam's oppression."

AFP PHOTO/ Chris KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)

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Mattis said Russia, China and Islamist militants were presenting the biggest challenge to the U.S.-led world order since World War Two, and called for Congress to lift spending caps undermining military readiness.

"I'm all for engagement but we also have to recognize reality in what Russia is up to," Mattis said, adding there were a "decreasing number of areas" where the United States might cooperate with Moscow.

Asked about the main threats to U.S. interests, Mattis said: "I would consider the principle threats to start with Russia."

Mattis said he wanted to meet with the new Trump national security team to "craft a strategy to confront Russia for what it's done," when questioned about the possibility of new U.S. sanctions.

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 agencies.

Mattis cited Russian involvement in hacking and information warfare among the challenges posed by Moscow. Others include treaty violations, destabilizing activities abroad and "alarming messages from Moscow regarding the use of nuclear weapons."

STRONG BACKING FOR NATO

He also accused Russia of trying to undermine NATO. Unlike Trump, who appeared to question the alliance during his campaign, Mattis strongly embraced it -- calling NATO central to America's defense.

"We recognize that he (Putin) is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance," Mattis said.

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 Putin.

RELATED: Poll - Favorability of Trump's Cabinet picks

"Putin wants to be our enemy. He needs us as his enemy. He will never be our partner," McCain exclaimed.

Mattis also singled out China for its activities in the South China Sea, where it has been building man-made islands with anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries.

Together with Russian activities and the threats of Islamist extremists, Mattis said China was part of mounting assault on global stability, and the relationship with Beijing needed to be carefully managed.

"I think it (the world order) is under the biggest attack since World War Two, sir, and that is from Russia, from terrorist groups, and with what China is doing in the South China Sea," he said, as he railed against defense spending caps imposed by Congress.

WAIVER NEEDED

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.

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.

Trump's pick for CIA director took a similar line during his confirmation hearing on Thursday, saying he would stand firm if necessary against Trump on the issue of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

RELATED: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions
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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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On the Middle East, Mattis was fiercely critical of Iran, cautioning that Tehran's "malign influence" in the region was growing.

"Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests," Mattis said in his written responses to the committee, also made public on Thursday.

On Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition is backing Iraqi troops battling Islamic State, Mattis said the main goal should be to ensure "that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran."

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.

Mattis said the U.S. strategy to retake the Islamic State militant group's de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria would to be reviewed and potentially re-energized.

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