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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to Europe

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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
June 27, 2017
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  Well, thanks for going, first of all.

And we're off to Germany.  First thing we're going to do there is basically -- why am I going to Germany?  It's the start of our strategic dialogue -- U.S. dialogue for one thing.

By that I mean we're going to sit down with my counterpart and talk about issues that are on her mind about the German-U.S. relationship.  And this is -- we've had a very good relationship.  Might remember -- (inaudible) -- is one of the first MOD -- might have been the first -- to come to D.C. and meet with me.  So, just continuing that dialogue.

They're in the mix of a political campaign right. That's a reality.  But it doesn't have really any impact externally.  Of course, I deal with whoever is the minister of defense.

And I think too, you pay a respect to an ally when you go and visit them.  So that's part of it.

And I like going back to first principles for why we did things.  Go back -- why did we ever get together with German?  What brought us together?  We were, you know, unholy allies -- enemies in a world war, and we ended up, you know, being allies to this day.  And doesn't mean it's always tidy, doesn't mean it's always deep, but we've been allies through and through.

And -- (inaudible) -- if you go back to first principles to remind yourself, what was it that started this whole thing, what were the shared values, that sort of thing, since no alliance can last this long unless you have something more than just a temporary, transient need to deal with each other.

I'll go at -- (inaudible) -- over to the German Marshall Center -- the German-U.S. Marshall Center.  One thing that's interesting about that, it's the only regional center we have in Department of Defense that's shared with another nation.

Our Africa Center is U.S. only. Our Asia-Pacific Center in Hawaii is American only.  So that sort of thing.

So she -- both Minister von der Leyen and I, both of us, she and I will speak there, and one of the purposes of Marshall -- (inaudible) -- this is the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, and that's what I'm going to use to look at the founding principles over -- go back and actually look at what was going on then.  Not just talk about something that came out of the blue; it didn't just come out of the blue.

So -- and after World War II and the destruction of that, this is one of those elements that have brought a lot of people together.

For example, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lot of former Soviet republic generals also came over and went to this center.  And to those dialogues, it helps us a lot to keep open lines of communication, reduce miscommunication and build trust.

After Germany, I'll go to Brussels for my second, as secretary of defense, ministerial, where the ministers of defense all get together.  And it's the first ministerial -- first real NATO meeting since the leaders met there at, I think it was like the end of May or early June, somewhere around there.

But this will be the first time Montenegro's in there as a full ally, so that's kind of a big deal in NATO.  There's only 28 nations, so, you know, it's kind of a big deal when you build by one. 

And I think I go there with a lot of clarity.  I don't think I'm going to be asked some of the questions I've been asked in the past.

And the reason is that when the Romanian president, another NATO ally was there at the White House, he came right out and said what he, I think, tried to say with his presence in Brussels a few weeks before:  that we're with them 100 percent on the Article 5 security guarantee.

And I think you'll also notice the U.S. Senate voted 100 to zero.  How often does that happen in the U.S. Senate, our wonderfully contentious, argumentative Senate?  There we are with a unanimous resolution, we stand with them.

So between the president saying something, 100 members of the Senate saying something, obviously that says a lot.

Further, we're going to talk about the threat, some issues that have to do with NATO.  I mean, view of the problem of terrorism, every other -- cyber attack, everything.  I'm sure they'll all come up in the ministerial.  

And NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg is going to recognize the increasing defense investments we're seen coming in, and discuss the national plans for how they're going to spend.  Something they all agreed to do.

But really it's a much broader -- it's not that -- that (inaudible) will not take very much of the time in the much broader ministerial.

And I just point out that I know there's a lot of news reports that report on tension on certain things in the NATO alliance, about how much money people are spending, are the Americans with them or not.  And I think that when you look at not just what happened in Washington with the vote or the president's statement, when you look at the increase in money the president asked for for the European Reassurance Initiative, ERI for short, when you see the amount of money he's asking for, you get the sense that oftentimes you can tell where someone really stands by following the money, follow the budget.  And there it is, in plain and simple terms the increase in spending this year over last year on European Reassurance Initiative.

Some of you, I think, were with me out in the forests in Lithuania.  Went out and we saw the U.S. troops, the -- (inaudible) -- troops, all sorts of different Canadian troops out there under German, Italian command as part of a Lithuanian brigade out in the forest.

And you saw they had been training well together.  They obviously had a sense of purpose to walk around and talk to them.  Very proud of their roles.

I think when you look at that, when you look at everything that's going on with the framework nations, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States, there are the four nations that provide basically the battalion combat group.  Then you look at the number of nations that have allowed troops to join, directed troops to join.  Then you look at the welcoming from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and you get a sense of NATO's reality from these actions, from the expected actions from everything else.

So, why don't I stop there -- kind of give you a snapshot why we're going place to place.  We'll just throw it open to your questions.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you talk to us a little bit about Afghanistan?  

You're going to NATO.  There's going to be, obviously, discussions there about increasing international support.  What are you looking for from your NATO allies?

And, obviously, General Dunford is in Afghanistan now.  You've wanted him to go -- you wanted -- you dispatched him there to gather information.  Can you talk to us about that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

On Afghanistan, the chairman flew out yesterday to go there and review and clarify and confirm what we call the lines of military effort, and ancillary efforts, not just military.  But that's his primary focus.  But there're also efforts that you know in something like this that are integrated with other aspects of it, of the campaign.

So he is there getting (inaudible) basically, and he'll report back to me.

While I'm in Brussels, we'll be talking to the other nations and, first of all, gauging their advice.  They've got advice on this.  They've all been in this from the beginning after America was attacked.  These are all nations that have contributed troops.  So I'll be getting advice from them.  They have their own -- (inaudible) -- of information coming back from their troops in the field.

I'll share with them our appreciation of the situation, assessment of the situation, and talk about what we're doing in terms of framing the strategy and filling in any gaps left in the strategy.

I'll also meet privately with Secretary General Stoltenberg on the same issue, but -- (inaudible) -- will of course will look across the alliance, at the alliance's capacities and capabilities.  

Then I'll return home with that information.

We will have talked in some level detail about nations willing to commit more.  That will be a dialogue; I don't think it's logged in yet.  What we need -- for example, if we need training NCOs, you don't send an infantry platoon with a lot of privates, okay?  So, what you're gonna do is try to construct a -- a capability that fills specific gaps, not just throws numbers against the wall. 

I'll return back to Washington with that information, and with Secretary Tillerson and the chairman, finish out some things, the intelligence community updating us on their assessment.  And then we'll present to the president a strategy that's been informed by our allies, to include Afghanistan of course, and given a framework that is regional in nature and focuses on how we end this war.  But on conditions that remove the danger to the Afghan people and to us and to all the nations that have been attacked by terrorist groups out of that region.

Q:  Well, do you know --

MATTIS:  Does that help?

Q:  Yes.  Getting specific, I know you don't have a lot of specifics, but do you have at least some general idea of the total number of troops you'd like to see come out of all the allies?

MATTIS:  Total number of troops out of all them?  No, right now I'm still looking at capabilities and that sort of thing.  I want to get updated before I make a decision like that.

The easiest thing in the world to do is to start talking numbers.  And to me it's the worst place to start.  I want to do everything else that builds to it.

I don't want extra troops there.  This is an Afghan army fight.  And we're going to do everything we can to help them be successful in their fight.  But this -- this is something where you can start off even, at this point, just throwing numbers.  You gotta -- you gotta refine it and what might've worked six months ago may not be right today.

Q:  I have a question about Turkey.

We all reported last week that in a letter that you sent to your Turkish counterpart, who I think you're gonna be meeting in Brussels; General Dunford announced that.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  Can you let us know -- in that letter apparently the Turks said that you offered to have weapons recovery.  So, weapons that are going to YPG will be recovered at some point.  Can you speak a bit to that?  And what extent was that -- how detailed is that recovery going to be?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay, first of all, the weapons that we're talking about here -- you know, they had plenty of weapons.  They were beating ISIS in every battle.  They never lost an inch of terrain to them.

What we gave them were weapons for urban fighting, basically.  These are weapons -- number one, we'll be recovering them during the battle, repairing them.  When they don't need certain things anymore we'll replace those with something they do need.  That sort of thing.

I mean, this is going to be a fight, and there's a lot of -- (inaudible) -- maybe they'll just collapse and run.  Well, maybe they will, but we don't count on that.  We're going to give them what engineering gear they need and that sort of thing.

And yes, we will recover that -- that gear when it's no longer needed by them.

Q:  Gear or weapons?  I'm sorry, I mean, so you mean like the MRAPs you're going to recover but not necessarily the --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Don't need anymore once this fight is over.

And we've been very clear we're going to equip them for the fight, and if they have another fight and they need, you know, the light trucks they've been using, you've noticed them on TV -- (inaudible), and they need that, then we'll get them that.

We're going to continue the fight against ISIS until we get them.

Q:  Sir, when you're not --

SEC. MATTIS:  So, it's dependent on the battle on --

Q:  So, is it full weapons recovery or is it only --

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Do you envision a full weapons recovery after the fight's over?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, you know, we'll -- we'll do what we can.  I -- I mean obviously they've got full weapons, you know, going in.  This is stuff they needed for this fight.  That's what we wanted to give them, the weapons they need for this fight.

Q:  So, at the end of the fight, we'll go back to (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we'll see.  It depends on what the next mission is.  You know, I mean it's not like the fight's over when Raqqa's over.

Q:  Sir?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  Hi, when you're in Brussels, do you anticipate discussing the enhanced forward --

SEC. MATTIS:  Sorry?

Q:  When you're in Brussels, do you anticipate discussing the enhanced forward presence and potentially committing additional U.S. troops to that presence?

SEC. MATTIS:  Enhanced forward presence?  That's a good question.  I've not considered it yet.

Let me listen to what they come up with, both SACEUR, the supreme allied military commander -- the military committee will have recommendations on that.  That's the three-stars or the chiefs of defense, General Dunford's guys.  And we'll see where they stand on it.

Right now, I don't recall any requests for that.  But I'll have to look.  I know there're requests to keep some of the European Reassurance Initiatives on track.  So I don't want to say that won't come up.  I just -- it's not something I'm focused on right now.

Q:  So, potentially extending the -- potentially extending the current commitments, say, through 2020?

SEC. MATTIS:  No -- yes, we -- we got the money to extend.  I don't know if it needs to be broadened or anything.  I haven't had any requests for that.

Q:  Well, I have a philosophical question for you.

SEC. MATTIS:  Sure.

Q:  So -- I mean, I couldn't help noticing when you were testifying on the budget the bipartisan support for -- you know, a lot of people expressed the sentiment that they were reassured that you were the secretary of defense.  But at the same time, we see a lot of people in Washington questioning whether a former military officer is really the right fit.

(inaudible), I saw an op-ed in the Post the other day that said -- (inaudible) -- a military technocrat and -- and suggested that because of your military background, you wouldn't be looking at all the political aspects.

What do you say to people who read that kind of stuff and worry about whether you're the right guy for the job?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, the first thing I'd say is, it's the first time I've ever been called a technocrat, so it sounds rather impressive actually.  I'm happy with that.

That's funny, T. M. You can smile, okay?

Q:  I can't hear a thing.

(Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  We made a joke.  Don't worry about it.  It wasn't that good.

It's kind of, truly, that decision about whether I was the right person or not was under our constitutional form of government mostly decided by the U.S. Congress.  The House of Representatives, in my case, had to also add their votes.  And then besides that, the Senate still had to do its duty on confirmation.

So, with the advice and consent of the Senate, but in my case because it needed a waiver or exemption of some kind.

Q:  So you enjoy widespread support, but what do you say to someone who thinks that you just have a military mind --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  -- you have a military solution, you're not going to be looking at the broader picture?

I mean, we know you.  You're not that kind of person.  But what would you say?

SEC. MATTIS:  I mean, we all adjust to the responsibility of the position we're put into.  And you know, we've paid enough of a price in this country for the freedoms we have.  I think making certain to use strategy to guide your way forward is critical and you can't talk strategy by staying military only.  That's a relatively narrow part of a strategy.

I think the best way to show that, perhaps, I'm more than -- I would use instead of technocrat, a little bit of automaton, would be that Rex Tillerson and I probably talk -- Secretary Tillerson and I probably talk twice a day on any given day, maybe three of four times a day, have breakfast together once a week.  I live across the street from his office; it's not a sacrifice to go to breakfast with the secretary of state at all.

I had good teachers, and those teachers were former secretaries of state, male and female, Republican and Democrats.  They're former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs.  They're former high-ranking members of Congress on Armed Service and Foreign Affairs Committees.  And, you know, I just -- I do the best I can.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, we know the line from the building and from the administration in Syria is that -- sorry, can you hear me?  The line --

SEC. MATTIS:  Speak up just a little.

Q:  The line that we hear is basically -- vis-a-vis Syria is that you're there to fight Isis.  Now the recent events that have played out over the last couple of weeks suggests that that kind of dogmatic focus on that one goal isn't going to be practical in the coming weeks and months. 

So how can you -- how can you reassure America that it's not stumbling into Syria's -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  That's a good question.  It's how do you avoid mission creep?

Really it's -- it would be mission creep if you just stumble into something else.

First of all, you stay focused on where the enemy is.  And you set up any number of coordination efforts if you're getting near converging forces.  Converging would be either Assad regime or Russian, and we have to assume there are Iranian either officered or Lebanese Hezbollah elements with them.

So what we do is we keep moving against ISIS.  We deconflict with the Russians; it's a very active deconfliction line.  It's on several levels, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of state with their counterparts in Moscow, General Gerasimov and Minister Lavrov.

Then we've got a three-star deconfliction line that is out of the Joints Chiefs of Staff out of the J5 there.

Then we have battlefield deconfliction lines.  One of them is three-star again, from our field commander in Baghdad, and one of them is from our CAOC, our Combined Air Operations Center, for real-time deconfliction.

And you just make certain there's open communication: "We're here you're there, we know where you're at," or "You're coming towards us, you're -- you're aiming at us, don't do it."  You know, that sort of thing.

Another thing is we won't make people under fire unless they're the enemy, unless they're ISIS.  The only exception to that is if under legitimate self-defense, if somebody comes after us, like bombs us or takes a heading on us or fires on us, then under legitimate self-defense, we'll do whatever we have to do to stop it.  Sometimes that's a deconfliction line; sometimes it might mean we have to fire back.

So we just refuse to get drawn in to a fight there in the Syria civil war.  We try to end that one through diplomatic engagement.

Q:  I appreciate what you're saying about the deconfliction in various channels, but, as we've seen in recent weeks, they're not perfect.  With the Iranian-backed militia in the south, they have -- they have ignored the --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, the Iranians have not lived by the rules.  We think the Russians have tried to dissuade them on occasion from doing things.

Q:  Are you worried about -- are you worried about an increase in conflict between the coalition and the Iranian militia?

SEC. MATTIS:  Not if the Iranian militia doesn't attack us, no.

Q:  Sir, how do you, kind of, see the fight in the RV playing out?  I mean you have the Syrian --

SEC. MATTIS:  Where?

Q:  In the Euphrates River Valley.  You have -- you have the airbase at Deir ez-Zor, which I would assume the regime backed by Russia would handle maybe that.  The U.S., the Iraqis -- (inaudible) -- Abu Kamal and maybe trying to set up a deconfliction line or deconfliction area to the north of Deir ez-Zor.

I mean, can you, kind of, explain how you'd like to see that fight play out?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Well, we'll continue to deconflict, (inaudible).  Raqqa is our main effort right now.  As you know, we always look towards the next fight and things are going on with that as well.

Deir ez-Zor has held.  Looks like the pro-Assad forces have linked up and broken through to them after -- what? -- year, year and a half being isolated.

But we'll work that fight again with the deconfliction efforts ongoing.  Generally there'll be established, I would call it from above, but the actual deconfliction on the ground, in other words shifting it 10 kilometers south here, five kilometers north there, be worked out by the field commander.  And again, the deconfliction lines through all of these contentious months that we've been through have never gone down.

Q:  So, have you -- basically you're saying that you're going to compartmentalize Euphrates River Valley, so, we'll be there, they'll be there, and then -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

It's probably not going to look that neat.  You know, it'll be based on where does the river bend here and where is it -- which side of the river is a town on there -- you know, this sort of thing.  So, it may look a little more squiggly.

But as long as it's worked out by the commanders and enough people know about it in -- in sufficient times, there are ways that are proven that we can do this.

However, as you mix more forces more closely together, what worked before for deconfliction won't.  It's going to take more precision.

Q:  So, do you see that being done at the company level?  Maybe -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I think it would have to be established above that level.  It's deconfliction, it's not coordination.  So, you got to deconflict either in time or in space.  And -- and oftentimes it's both, because as it compresses, a fast-moving airplane can fly in and out of deconfliction zones.

So you've got to -- you've got to really play this thing very carefully and the closer we get, the more complex it gets.

Q:  Thank you, (Off mic).