Retired Marine General James N. Mattis was confirmed and sworn in as President Trump’s defense secretary Friday, breaking with decades of precedent as a recently retired General became the Pentagon’s top civilian leader.
Mattis, 66, was approved with a 98-1 vote after the presidential inauguration and then sworn in by Vice President Pence.
The new Pentagon Chief released a statement to U.S. troops afterward that credited not only them, but intelligence personnel as “sentinels and guardians of our nation”.
Mattis also pledged to work with the State Department to strengthen U.S. alliances abroad, some of which have been rattled by Trump questioning their worth.
“We need only look to you, the uniformed and civilian members of the Department and your families, to see the fundamental unity of our country. You represent an America committed to the common good; an America that is never complacent about defending its freedoms; and an America that remains a steady beacon of hope for all mankind,” Mattis said.
Many lawmakers and long-time foreign policy observers hope Mattis can be a moderating voice of experience in an administration that has notably few senior officials with national security experience in Washington. He will lead the Defense Department’s 1.9 million active-duty service members and reservists and oversee a budget of more than $580 billion as Trump prepares to expand the military.
Mattis becomes the first senior military officer to serve as Defense Secretary since President Truman nominated Army General George C. Marshall for the job in 1950, as the U.S. military struggled in the Korean War.
Mattis retired in spring 2013 as the Chief of U.S. Central Command after a career in which he became one of the most influential officers of his generation and commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mattis is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation, a strategic thinker who occasionally drew rebukes for his aggressive talk. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University.
Like Trump, Mattis favors a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
“Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?” Mattis said at the Heritage Foundation in 2015, speaking about the separate challenges of the Islamic State and Iranian-backed terrorism.
“I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion. If we won’t even ask the question, how do we even recognize which is our side in a fight?”
“In terms of strengthening America’s global standing among European and Middle Eastern nations alike, the sense is that America has become somewhat irrelevant in the Middle East, and we certainly have the least influence in 40 years,” he added.