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Media Availability by Secretary Mattis En Route to U.S.

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Dec. 5, 2017
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Thanks for coming out.  I know you've got families at home and routines at home that you enjoy.  Thanks for coming out.

As you know, we're flying out of Kuwait.  When I got to Kuwait, I met with the minister of defense and the minister of foreign affairs that first night when we were there, then left for the day and came back in last night; saw some of you around there; and then this morning, met with the emir.

I'll tell you that the relationship between U.S. Department of Defense and the state of Kuwait, the military of Kuwait, the leadership of Kuwait is obviously one that was really forged in a fight, in a war for the liberation of Kuwait.

And since that time, there has been a special bilateral relationship.  We can always count on them.  It's a very open, transparent, honest relationship.  They'll tell you what they think right upfront about any issue - if asked, and we do ask them.  Routinely, I'll go to them for advice.

They're a little bit, I would say -- and I'll say that off the record later -- but they're a very good window into the region because of where they geographically sit.  I would call it, kind of, the political plains.  You know, we've got Iraq to the north connected to Syria.  You've got Iran, then you've got the Arab states.  And so it's sitting right geographically in the middle.

And it's also a cosmopolitan country and has been for many years.  The emir is very big, for example, on education for his young people.  It’s a very high priority.  So. they encourage their young people to go to United Kingdom, United States.  And we have -- I think only Saudi Arabia -- much larger, has more students there of any country in this region.  So, this shows the priority placed on education.

But going back to the mil-to-mil relationship, it's a very close relationship.  I believe they're the fourth -- I'll say it, and you let me know if I'm off on the number – but I believe they're the fourth largest host of U.S. troops internationally.  Germany, Japan, Korea and then Kuwait.

And so -- and they do this happily, willingly.  You’ll hear of no frictions in a part of the world where that's really quite possible, as you know.  So, it's a close and very much of a partnership kind of relationship.

When I met with the minister of defense and the minister of foreign affairs, we were talking about all the issues swirling around right now.  And, just showing the dynamics of the region, when I met this morning with the emir, and the minister of defense again before I met with emir, right away Yemen came up.  You know why.

So, again, it's they're connected.  We can always get a new regional perspective.  It will be an informed perspective.  They have, obviously, many contacts in the region because they live here.

And one point I made to both his ministers the other day and then to the emir today, he was calling together the GCC, which for any of you who follow this region, it's been having a rift over something with Qatar.  And so, senior leaders from all the GCC states showed up yesterday and are showing up today, and he still took time out to see me, which says something -- a minister of defense level.  And he's, you know, like, above the prime minister as an emir.

And so, we spent some time talking about the Yemen situation, but most of it was about his commitment to the military-to-military relationship because of the turmoil in the region.  He sees it as a stabilizing influence.  Just keep everything calm, with them sitting right at this crossroads of the Gulf and the Middle East.  

He's been trying to mediate the differences.  He's certainly an older man with a lot of wisdom, a lot of experience.  He's been just unflagging.  I mean, he has maintained at times shuttle diplomacy schedules that would have broken a person half his age.  He just keeps working, as you see here again today all the planes from the other Arab countries coming in as he continues to work this.  He just doggedly keeps at it.

For the United States, we need the GCC structure.  We need the unity of the GCC, in terms of a stabilizing influence in the Gulf.  So we support what he's doing. We applaud what he's doing, and we stand with him on that effort.  We're looking for cohesion in the GCC and the peaceful resolution of the regional disputes.

So, do you want to ask one or two questions?

Q:  Yes, if I could just start off --

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm surprised it's you.  I mean, you're always usually shy and the last --

Q:  I know.  We never talk, right?

(Laughter.)

We're expecting the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the coming days.  Arab allies have warned against it.  U.S. intelligence agencies have also said it could cause risk to U.S. citizens.

Do you believe it's in the national security interest of the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital?

SEC. MATTIS:  Ladies and gentlemen, last week we met on this -- late last week. I forget what day.  We met in the sit room on this.  It was an open discussion, went on for some time.  As always, my advice to the president I keep confidential.  That's between the president and I, or if he has someone else in the room.  And so, the president -- I gave my input.  I know there's other world leaders who have said they've called, but for right now we'll wait until the president makes the decision.  And I won't comment beyond that because it would presuppose the decision.

Q:  But do you believe it could put U.S. national security interests at risk?

SEC. MATTIS:  I gave my advice to the president -- that sort of evaluation, I gave to the president what I thought.  You have to look at the world in different parts and pieces too.  So, as you do that, you have to have a lot of information.  I collected the information.  I made my recommendation, and I'll just leave it that.

I'll get you and then I'll get you and then we're gonna go off the record.

Q:  I have, sort of, a question on a completely different topic.  A lot of us have traveled with secretaries of defense around this time of year to the Middle East, and a lot of times they've gone into the war zone to thank the troops and everything.  And I know you didn't on this trip, but I don't want to foreshadow anything -- you may or may not fly a plane to Iraq next week.  But is that something you deliberately make a decision not to do?  I'm just curious about your -- your thoughts on sort of doing the holiday troop visits.  You don't do a lot of them.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not going to discuss my upcoming travel, Lita.  I carry out my duties to the best of my ability.

Tony?

Q:  Let me ask you about Korea again.  As we were in the Middle East, H.R. McMasters said at the Reagan Forum in California that "every day we move closer to war."  Senator Lindsey Graham said, "Now is the time for the United States to start flying out non-combatant U.S. citizens from Korea."

SEC. MATTIS:  Who said that?

Q:  Senator Lindsey Graham has advocated evacuating non-combatants from South Korea.  I need to get your reaction to those two remarks.  Do you feel that every day we're moving closer to war on the Korean Peninsula if we don't resolve the nuclear issue?

SEC. MATTIS:  Tony, without trying to dissemble, okay, I don't comment on -- because every day someone is saying something.  And I see myself and the Department of Defense in a position to defend America, to allow people to have freedom of speech.

There needs to be in a democracy robust discussions, and if at certain seminars, conferences, on Capitol Hill, news conferences people say things, -- basically, I can be reacting or responding to those, rather than remaining focused on the issues.

And you know where I stand on this as we try to resolve this with diplomatic means.  You've seen me full heart -- full effort in the United Nations in New York, led by Ambassador Haley.

You've seen Secretary Tillerson making this his number one priority.  The Canadian foreign minister and Secretary Tillerson recently came out and said they're pulling the sending states together -- these are the states that sent troops to Korea in 1950 under the U.N. mandate -- plus ROK, Republic of Korea and Japan, in British Columbia.  But it's under the foreign minister's authority, not the defense minister, not the secretaries of defense.

So, I think right now there are some issues that I know it's frustrating for you all.  But if they are not handled in private, political maneuver room can be reduced.  In other words, even by going into some of this in the open, we can reduce other nations' ability to look like they're acting on their own rather than response to something.

So at times, as frustrating as it is, I don't want to engage publicly on it.  I'm just trying to give you some of the background why I won't.  Because if I do that, I actually work against sometimes the very end.  I don't control -- once those words are out there.  I think it was Lee Kuan Yew who said, Words are very precious things.  Once they're let out, they can never be recalled.

So in this question, I don't want to have to try to recall words, because it's a dynamic situation.  But it remains diplomatically led right now, even as we exercise in order to keep the military options available.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can I ask one Pakistan question?  What actions would you like to see from Pakistan over the next five to six to seven months --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, that's an example of what I won't do, for the same reason I just gave you.

Q:  Can I just ask about Yemen?  What is your -- what are your thoughts on what's happening in Yemen?  And broadly your support for the Saudi-led effort in Yemen been criticized for human rights violations?  Not the U.S. but the Saudi effort.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Yeah.  The Houthis have also been criticized for human rights violations.  Right now, I think it's too early to tell which way the killing of Saleh will take it.  Now, it could take it towards the -- what we've been trying for how many months now, trying to get it this to the U.N.-brokered peace table.  It could take it to an even more vicious war.  It's too early to say which way the dynamic will go.

One thing I think I can say with a lot of concern and -- and probably likelihood is that the situation for the innocent people there, the humanitarian side, is most likely to go worse in the short term.  So this is where we've all got to roll up our sleeves and figure out what you're going to do about medicine and food and clean water, cholera being the result of unclean water -- what are we going to do about that even as we try to sort out the security/military situation and the diplomatic way ahead?  I think there's got to be a lot more focus on the humanitarian side right now.

Q:  Do you see a DOD role in that, though?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  Do you see a DOD role soon in the humanitarian side?

SEC. MATTIS:  No -- no, I don't think -- no, I don't see a DOD role.

STAFF:  Let’s switch to off-the-record, shall we?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay.