General Jim Mattis: I Won’t Repeal Women in Combat or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Military Reforms

During his four-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Secretary of Defense nominee broke from the president-elect on women in combat and NATO.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Gen. Jim Mattis, long a skeptic of putting women in combat roles, assured senators during his first day of confirmation hearings that he would not roll back Obama-era policies which some on the right have derided as “social experimentation.”

“The standards are the standards and when people meet the standards then that’s the end of the discussion on that,” the general said, telling the committee that if confirmed as Defense Secretary, he would not enter the office with an agenda to oppose women in combat.

Like other Donald Trump administration nominees, the retired general was ready to break with the president-elect on a number of issues.

Mattis, the nominee for Defense Secretary, also praised NATO as “the most successful military alliance, probably, in modern world history, maybe ever,” one that Russia is “trying to break.” He told senators he had a “very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community,” despite Trump’s ongoing feud with them.

Mattis has had a history of public statements outlining his concern that men and women cannot serve in combat services without “love or affection” compromising their judgement. Trump appears to agree: he has previously blamed the high rate of sexual assaults in the military on gender integration.

In March 2016, current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter approved plans from the military to open all combat roles to women.

And the general was singing the same tune before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday afternoon.

Fifteen percent of the military is made up of women, and if they can meet the same physical standards of men, they should be allowed to serve, Mattis told Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who has been a key advocate for female service members.

“I have no plan to oppose women serving in any aspect in our military. In 2003, I had hundreds of Marines who happened to be women, serving in my 23,000 person Marine division. This is 10 years before I retired. I put them right into the front lines just like everyone else,” Mattis said. “If someone brings me a problem, I’ll look at. But I’m not coming in looking for problems… I’m looking for ways to get the department so it’s at its most lethal stance.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a law prohibiting LGBT individuals from serving openly in the military, was repealed during the Obama years. In an indication of how things have changed culturally in the military with regard to the topic, in the last decade, Mattis didn’t show much concern about it.

“Frankly, senator, I have never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” he told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

While Mattis is unlikely to be an aggressive advocate of LGBT rights or of women in combat, outside groups took Mattis’ statements as an optimistic signal.

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“We were happy to hear during the hearing today that Mattis does not intend to arbitrarily roll back the policy allowing qualified women to compete for all positions in the military,” said Kate Germano, a spokesperson for the Service Women’s Action Network. “We applaud him for his appreciation of the evolving role of women in the military as the reason for his own evolution in thinking on the issue.”

Added Outserve SLDN and the American Military Partner Association, both of which advocate for LGBT service members in a statement: “We are heartened by General Mattis’ stated commitment during his testimony not to reverse the profound progress we have made in ensuring LGBT service members and their families are able to serve our nation with pride.”

Much of Mattis’ popularity among Capitol Hill and military service members stems from a ‘warrior-monk’ reputation that he developed through decades of military service. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he was the subject of a campaign to draft him into the race as an independent candidate.

But despite his popularity amongst the troops, he faces an additional hurdle that most Secretary of Defense nominees do not face. Federal law requires that military officers be out of uniform for at least seven years before becoming Secretary of Defense, which is meant to codify the concept of civilian control over the Pentagon.

Because of this law, Mattis will require a Congressional waiver to pass through the House and Senate. He advanced his case through the committee Thursday: the panel voted 24-3 to grant him the waiver, which still needs to be voted on by the full House and Senate.

His confirmation hearings took a mere four hours—almost a formality as compared to the nine hour grilling that Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson receive Wednesday.

Though known by the troops as ‘Mad Dog’ and ‘Chaos,’ Mattis found a way to be, well, diplomatic:saving the bared teeth and growling for the Pentagon’s targets, and all but ensuring his confirmation later this month.