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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to Brussels, Belgium

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  So, we'll talk for a few minutes on the record, okay?  And then we'll do some questions on the record.  I'll talk for a few minutes, do some questions on the record, then we'll go to off-the-record.  Does that sound okay?


First of all, thank you.  I'm sure you were up at O-dark-30 this morning.  Many of you are still on Singapore time, so thanks very much for coming on the trip because I think you know we're going to Europe.  We'll be stopping in Brussels and London.

Brussels is for a couple events, but principally the NATO Defense Ministerial where we get together.  This is not an usual or an unscheduled meeting.  This is a scheduled, routine, normal consultation between NATO allies.  Still the -- probably the most capable military alliance in history, especially if you look at the fact it can prevent wars, and we saw that during the Cold War as the NATO nations -- democratic nations mustered together.

It's -- the reason we go there, the reason we do these is the opportunity to strengthen the alliance.  We discuss critical challenges, shared security, we make progress on achieving alliance goals.  For example, we'll decide on something and we'll come back, we'll tell about how we're doing, new decisions, that sort of thing.

Also talk about things we don't agree on.  That's normal among democracies.  Democracies themselves don't agree on everything inside.  They also don't agree with each other on everything.

So it's the opportunity to keep closing the gaps and keep working it.  This is a normal give-and-take of alliance unity.

That's what we'll be addressing is alliance unity and achieving the goals set by the national leaders.  These -- the unity of the alliance is probably the most emblematic factor of NATO.  If you step back and look at NATO, what does it -- you know, some have large -- some NATO nations have large armies, some have small.  Whether it's large nations, small nations, some are very -- have very good air forces; that's their -- their claim to fame.  Others have very effective deployable forces.

You see this really represented in the Polish, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia area, where you have four NATO battle groups.  Each of those are led by a framework nation.  The framework nations are Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, United States.  And around each of those framework nations, for example, some of you might have been with me when I visited the battle group in Lithuania in the forest there.  And there you find Dutch troops, you saw American troops.  Obviously a lot of German troops; they're the framework nation, the leader.

But there are some all across Europe -- (inaudible) -- when you look at the four different battle groups.  And those battle groups represent NATO's deterrent effect -- (inaudible).  Just calm everything down up in the Baltic area, because NATO stands with these nations -- these small nations.  And let's keep everything calm and keep talking in regard to issues with Russia on which we disagree.

We're also going to be talking about the 2 percent -- where we're at on 2 percent.  Just to give you some background, just -- just general figures, in 2014, there were three countries who were spending 2 percent or more.  And at the Wales NATO Summit, like these normal consultations, they determined 2 percent should be the goal of everybody and you get on the wave there.

In 2018, I believe we'll have eight nations.  So, basically we'll have more than doubled, nearly tripled, the number of nations.  And the target date, right now -- the target date meaning this is where we want to be by this date by 2024, we have, right now, 15 that we can, I think, reasonably anticipate, have firm plans to get to 2 percent.

But, that said, we have seen -- 2017 has saw the largest growth as a percent of GDP in the last 25 years.  And that's arithmetic.  It's not -- that's not an opinion, that's the largest growth in 25 years of the percent of GDP was in 2017.

In 2018, we would anticipate continued growth.  That is what the nations are saying.  The growth continues until -- they're sometimes challengeable, if someone's not growing fast enough, if someone's not growing in this area, okay?

They're all growing.  And so, that is really the -- the indicator of NATO's unified approach.  Now, we'll be discussing is everybody growing enough?  Is everybody growing the right areas?  There's also something about modernization, that's part of the NATO plan.

But bottom line is we'll be discussing how much growth, not whether or not there's going to be growth.  You see what I mean?  That's the whole discussion has shifted before us from, we've got to quit cutting, which is what we were all doing up until 2014.  And now, it's everybody is growing across the board.

But these are things that we have to continue to talk with one another about.  We're -- we call them like we see them, we all do.  We're all co-equal when you sit in that part-II, as many of you have in before, that room, we are -- as far as the United States goes, we are unambiguously committed to Article V.

You know, the president made that statement last -- it's been a year ago now, June of last year.  There has been no -- no half stepping by us or by anyone else.  And you'll notice that numerous NATO nations have also added to their numbers, fighting alongside the French, advising alongside the French, supporting the French for continuing to lead the effort on Africa, French -- (inaudible).  We see also, the uplifts of hundreds of troops coming in, thousands when you just put it all together, coming into Afghanistan.

But it's the enduring sharing of values and the shared respect across the alliance that allowed this to move forward.  That doesn't mean that we don't call -- don't speak candid with one another.  We're a democracy.  We have a right to speak up.  But the thing about NATO is that even small nations can speak up with confidence there because sitting around that table are some of the most -- most capable democracies in the world.

(Inaudible) -- but certainly most -- most capabilities, in terms of military capabilities are sitting there.  Because of NATO also, and the NATO unity -- remember, NATO had 29 nations in it.  There are, right now, 41 nations in Afghanistan on the NATO campaign.  That doesn’t equal, no it doesn't.  But other nations have joined with NATO, there.  Other nations have added their troops since we came out with our new strategy, as well.

So, when you look at what's going on in these meetings, I know, at times, you wonder why we keep running back and forth across the Atlantic.  What is the output? -- (inaudible).  

These are -- when you see the increased defense spending by everyone; when you see what the French are leading in North Africa with increased support and you see what NATO is leading in Afghanistan with increased support, you're seeing the output of these meetings.  These meetings are just the forum and the input, okay?  The output is what I focus on.

There -- besides the ministerial here -- because all of those nations are there and it's the NATO Headquarters, NATO -- it is NATO's flag at the head of the Afghan Campaign -- that will also need a look called the Defeat ISIS Coalition Minister, and many of the same nations, obviously, are there, and it's convenient to pull together at that time, rather than run separate meeting, separate time.

So, alongside NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, as you're aware, there are 71 nations and international organizations who -- again, around NATO, largely -- that are fighting ISIS. 

International organizations, by the way, are NATO itself, and Arab League, the Interpol -- and there's another one; I'll think -- I'll come back to you on that.  But the others are all independent nations, basically, okay?  And I think that -- it's the European Union.  Of course, the other people are headquartered right there in Brussels.  (Laughter.)

You know?  No wonder we're going to Brussels.  

So -- but, alongside NATO's Secretary General Stoltenberg -- he and I will be sitting there together as we have this discussion.  We've made headway, as you know, over the last year.  And, 48 hours ago, the SDF, the coalition force and -- advising the Syrian Democratic Force, recommenced their offensive against one of the last remaining pockets of ISIS. 

It's going well so far.  I can report to you there's been progress made.  Frankly, I anticipated more -- more defenses, and they have not been able to hold up.

So the physical caliphate continues to go on -- go down, I mean.  And it is under a fair amount of pressure, as you know.  But we don't consider this over.  It's still a fight, and we are going to continue the offensive against them.  

One of the aspects of that fight is we not set the conditions for the rise of ISIS 2.0.  In other words, we have to do a whole lot of things -- not just do the fighting, but how do you then clear the rubble, clear the IEDs?  And, here, we have a fair amount of international money coming in.  

But with over 70 nations, international organizations, I think we'll get what we need.  And there's a fair number of nations that have made the commitments, the donations already.  Other commitments are outstanding right now.  That continues to be a good news story for us, that you see others working with us.

And we're looking to work with other partners and others in the region to try to enhance, enable more security and stability.  In that (inaudible)-- that effort -- the U.N. special envoy's effort is still the primary effort from our point of view.  There are others also trying to help, and there are some who are not so helpful, as you know. 

But we continue in this very complex battlespace to work for the large, large number of international organizations.

It is interesting to see that right next door, Iraq just recently having freed their people of -- you all have to take the knee there, you feel free to do so.  I think, too, that for Iraq to not only free their people, but then, to run a -- an election -- you could say whether or not it's a perfect -- there are no perfect elections.  But to run an election after what they've been through, and the whole world waited to see who was going to win.  In other words, we really didn't know.  It was really an election.

They are now in the process of forming a government that is causing groups to work -- political groups to work with each other.  At the same time, the Iraqi armed forces continue along the border especially where we're fighting in Syria to stay in the field against ISIS.

So you just think of where Iraq was in 2014 -- again, remember that, you know, was Baghdad going to fall or not was the question of the day.  And look where they're at today, and you can see that the international community coming together and stays together, the international community can beat terrorism.  It's never going to be clean when you're up against people that use bombs instead of ballots, but we can do so.

Coming out of that meeting, I'll fly over to London.  And I had an invitation from my counterpart, Secretary Williamson, to attend the Trooping of the Colours.  It's basically an annual celebration in honor of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, along with serving monarchs, as you know.

And because I -- I needed more time with my U.K. counterpart anyway -- as you know, the United Kingdom and the United States have a -- have a very enduring -- probably unmatched in history, over all the years, enduring special relationship.  And so I get to also have further discussions with him about operations worldwide, by the way, not -- not in any one location.

But really, what holds us together with the U.K., as is similar to so many democratic nations, is shared values.  That's the bottom line.  The military is just a manifestation of its shared values.

So it -- it give us an opportunity to reinforce our solidarity with this long-time ally.

Another -- another issue, and -- (inaudible) -- you'll have to bear with me here.  I'll just tell you that you're aware that we got very, very large budget increases from the bipartisan -- or with bipartisan support from the Congress.  That brings with it a special responsibility to maintain the trust of those people who put themselves on the line at a time when they had to make sacrifices, and to vote on sacrifices.  Those dollars that are coming to the military could have been spent elsewhere.

So we are running, for the first time, a complete audit of the U.S. Department of Defense.  This is an enormous undertaking, but the bottom line is we have got to find where we can improve our processes.

I talked when I came in, I had three principal lines of effort.  One is to make the military more lethal.  The second was to build stronger alliances with our allies, and partnerships with partners, and new partnerships, new allies.  The third was to reform the business practices of the Pentagon.  Those are my sole three lines of effort, 16 months in.

The only way I can reform the business practices is by going down and having auditors go in, dig deep, and start uncovering where our processes are faulty, where we have programs going on that are not fully funded that should be, or programs going on that are getting funded that are not on track or we no longer need.  I want a complete audit.  So I'm looking for problems, and we're going to solve every one of them as they come in.

So let me stop there with -- and give you time to ask some questions here before I go to work with this.

STAFF:  Let's -- (inaudible) -- questions.  Yeah.

Q:  On the NATO meeting, do you expect them – the meeting to support this plan to establish some new headquarters, one in Germany and the one in Norfolk -- (inaudible).  I'm wondering what the context of that is.  Is that -- is that designed with Russia?  Is deterrence in mind?  If so, does that mean deterrence probably is inadequate?

SEC. MATTIS:   All right.

So Bob's question is about two headquarters.  One is a maritime headquarters basically focused on the Atlantic, and one is one that would -- I would call it the -- the logistic network of NATO itself, which the Germans have volunteered to lead.

These two headquarters, I believe, are on track to be approved.  We've had a lot of discussion about it, right down to the staffing of them.  So, you know, we'll have to see if someone in their study has come up with questions, we'll answer the questions.

But I -- I know that last time there was, across the board, an awful lot of support for it.  There were still some questions either the supreme commanders, both of them, needed to answer, but also the chairman of the Military Committee.  I think those have all been done by paper.  The answers are out there.  And I anticipate we'll move forward.

The -- the challenge with Russia -- excuse me.  The challenge of Russia is that Russia, from NATO's perspective, has more in common with NATO in terms of its future.  But try as we might, trying to make common cause with Russia has been exceedingly difficult.

And 2014 was a watershed year.  They have not lived up to the Minsk Agreement, and we tried to resolve the events of 2014.  We have Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty issues with Russia.

We -- again, we look for, where can we collaborate, where can we dialogue with Russia?  And by Russia's choice, we have not found that to be fruitful.

NATO will never turn off dialogue with Russia.  NATO will never turn its back on trying to make better relations with Russia.  But when we see what has gone on in the American elections and some European elections certainly, when we see other aspects of the Russians changing borders in Europe through the force of arms, then NATO has to respond.  That's when democracies unify, and recognize they must have a NATO fit for its time.  So we're working back from that.

Certainly, those headquarters show a NATO that's adapting to the current security situation.

Does that answer your question?

Q:  Can I follow up on that? The other thing that might come up, and in turn, might have the same -- (inaudible), how much of that is aimed at deterring Russia -- (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  A NATO that is fit for its time is a deterrent of war, obviously.  So as we make these adaptations, our effort is to deter conflict and push everything into the diplomatic arena to be settled there.

So that's -- that's the bottom line at NATO.  I think we we’ve been consistent that everything we do to keep the deterrent best fit for its time.

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Tariffs.

Q:  Tariffs --

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yes, yes.

Q:  You called it unusual. Will this, so called trade war, be kind of bad for security cooperation with our allies?

SEC. MATTIS:  So will the trade war have a -- have a -- an impact effect on the security relationship?  Right now, I don't see that and I think it's still premature to call it a trade war, because as it starts maturing, you know, there's only give and take on these things.

And so what we're looking for is fair and reciprocal trade.  We can't have a 2 percent on imported cars and other nation have a 10 percent tax on our cars when they're imported to their country.

We're looking for reciprocal trade.  So along the path going there, certainly it'll be a little rocky, a little bumpy at times, but so far I do not anticipate any effects in security -- (inaudible).  Yes.

Q:  When we last traveled with you to Europe, the Syrian detainees was a big issue, the detainees in Syria.

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yes.

Q:  And at that point, you were trying to get countries to take their own citizens back.  We had a briefing from Baghdad yesterday where we were told several countries had, but there was still work to be done on that.

Will that come up during these meetings and what would you like to see?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm -- the -- the questions about foreign terrorist fighters that are currently held in basically northeastern Syria under the SDF, but I think it's a larger issue.  Certainly that issue will come up, especially in the defeat ISIS meeting following the ministerial, okay?

But it's a larger question, that is how does a -- how do nations that believe in the rule of law deal with their citizens who go off somewhere else to fight as part of a transnational terrorist enemy, killing innocent people.

How do you deal with that when they're taken on the battlefield?  Often on the battlefield, there will not be what we consider to be a chain of evidence –custody of evidence from the point of capture like you would expect from any police force as you would expect in Brussels or Chicago.

We will not have camera footage, we will not have eyewitnesses because what they may have been doing for the last 18 months, we don't have all that accurately.  So it's how do you deal with this as a matter of the law of armed conflict under the Geneva Convention?

How do nations individually deal with it under their own set of laws?  It's a complex issue, I'm sure it will come up.

Q:  Are you going to press more?


Q:  Will you press more nations to be taking their citizens still?  Are there some that are --

SEC. MATTIS:  Well we'll -- we have to deal with it, you know, and there's any number of ways to do that, and certainly one of the ways is that nations take -- take charge of their citizens.

Q:  And if I can -- can go back to the tariffs, please talk about the fair and reciprocal trade, but it's also tariffs on -- on steel and it's -- it's also what we call secondary sanctions with the JCPOA.  So how do you justify to your European allies that they have to spend more money on NATO and, at the same time, they can make less money in their international trade?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, if -- if you have fair and reciprocal international trade, you will not make less money.  If you have unfair trade, well, that certainly causes some nations to lose. 

I mean, the example I just gave -- if one nation exports cars to America and we charge 2 percent import duty, and, as -- that same country, getting American cars, charges 10 percent, that is not fair and reciprocal.  I mean -- so that's a separate issue from security.

Q:  Well, the president linked that to national security.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, the role of the U.S. economy, for the last 70 years, has been the locomotive, the engine that keeps our national security apparatus funded.  You know and I know I would not have that budget I just referred to if we did not have an economy right now with the lowest unemployment rate -- I don't know, you tell me how many decades it's been. 

We just crossed over, by the way, that we now have more people looking for people to hire right now than we have available -- first time in 25 years, I think, or longer.  It's probably, to me, the best chart going, when I look at -- you know, a job gives a person a sense of self-worth.  It gives families hope they can put their kids through school. 

You've got to have economies that are strong if you're -- I have never seen, in history, one country that maintained its military strength that did not keep its economic house in order.  Not one.

So, as we look at how you do this with fair and reciprocal trade, that should not be a bar to working together, when you share values of democracy and that sort of thing, for your own unified protection and deterring war.  So that's why I just don't see this in a -- an either-or situation.  You may; I don't.

Q:  Okay.  And, if I could --

STAFF:  And, last question.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about -- you discussed the -- the SDF operations going on, Operation Roundup.  My question is, do you think that operation and potential future mop-up sort of efforts by the SDF will be affected by the ongoing talks regarding Manbij with Turkey right now?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay.  Yes, we think -- (inaudible) -- I should have brought that up in my prepared remarks.  Thank you.  We have had talks going on between our secretary of state and minister of foreign affairs in Washington D.C. 

We are working out, how do we take -- again, Turkey, NATO ally -- how do we take Turkey's legitimate security interests and enhance their security?  They are the only NATO nation with an active insurgency inside its borders.

They're the front-line state for NATO on the -- on the front line of this disaster that Assad has visited upon his people in Syria, with the Iranians' help, the Russians' help.  And we have got to find a way to work Turkey's legitimate interests. 

At the same time, the SDF was the only organization at the time that was able to throw ISIS off track and defeat them in the field in very, very tough fighting.  And we will not simply cast that organization aside, because it is critical to stopping -- to defeating the ISIS caliphate now, which we've still not defeated.  It is critical to destroying the physical caliphate that -- the operations that are going right now.  And it's critical to preventing the rise of ISIS 2.0.

So you have this very complex battle space.  We are working with Turkey for how we work this issue, and we will continue to work it forward.

Q:  Can you do both?  Can you maintain that?

SEC. MATTIS:  It's a complex issue.  It's the most complex battle space I've seen.  But there's no doubt that we are working with Turkey to try and address their concerns -- at the same time, defeat ISIS.  And it's a very difficult job, I'll be the first to admit.  But we're doing it.  We're working it, and we're ranking it with Turkey, not against Turkey.

Q:  Can I ask one question?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, by all means.  You haven't had a chance yet.

Q:  I appreciate it.  Thank you.  Just wanted to follow up on some questions.

SEC. MATTIS:  And where are you from?

Q:  The Philadelphia Inquirer.

SEC. MATTIS:  Here's to Philly, okay?

Q:  Thank you very much.

SEC. MATTIS:  Right.

Q:  To follow up on some questions about the tariffs --


Q:  -- when you look at just a -- some of the wider context, you put that in the context of the JCPOA decision, the decision on the Paris climate deal.  How do you assure European countries, traditional allies, that the United States, this administration, is still on the same page as them and it's --

SEC. MATTIS:  It's still --

Q:  -- still -- is it on the same page?  It's still committed to --


Q:  -- the alliances that have historically been there?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I think part of what you have to do here -- and thanks for coming along.  We try --

Q:  Thank you for having me --

SEC. MATTIS:  -- to bring someone from other parts of the country, too.  So, once in a while -- we can get a little incestuous -- (Laughter.)

Q:  I appreciate it.


SEC. MATTIS:  It's good to have a fresh view. 

The -- first of all, remember, no one issue, and no one decision on that one issue, and no one decision on one issue at a -- at a day -- on a day, is going to change the fact that we have shared values in many -- areas, that we have shared interests.

It's in all of our interests, for example, to block the terrorists who are trying to get into Europe.  Now, you could say, "Well, America, you're a long ways away.  You've got an ocean, you and Canada." 

We stand with Europe and the threat -- what they -- what is referred to as "the threat from the south," which is really out of the Middle East and North Africa.  It is why the French are leading a tremendous effort to help the nations down in the trans-Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and all.

This is not something where they wait until the Paris trends there.  So, when you look at the amount of shared effort we have going on, disagreements on any one or two issues, even they're -- even the significant, as included as you just mentioned, they will not throw us off. 

But, at the same time, the reason I'm traveling there is to listen to them, to take notes, to work these things forward and find the common ground and work out with them.  The reason President Trump will be travelling to the NATO summit meeting coming up here in -- what is it?  A month now?  Next month? -- is for the same reason.

So the fact that there's disagreements, I recognize those make news.  All the harmony of what's going on, the growth in budgets -- that's kind of -- that's not news.  You know, that's what we expect.  But we will focus. 

It's almost like you have an orchestra playing, but you've also got cymbals clashing.  We'll address the cymbals, no problem.  They wake everybody up, if they're starting to nod off in the audience, you know?  But that does not refute the fact that the violins are in harmony and so are a lot of other things.  Okay?

Q:  Do you -- do you have --

SEC. MATTIS:  And (NATO) Secretary General Stoltenberg is an extraordinary leader, finding the common ground, while calling out the uncommon ground in terms that say, "What can we do about this in positive terms?"  In other words, we're not going there to -- to basically find fault with each other; we're going there to find out how to roll up our sleeves and pull -- keep pulling together, pulling together.

There are always forces that pull us apart:  domestic politics, international interests.  That’s the norm.  Now the norm is too that we get together and we say, "We're going to do everything we can to keep the unity what it is today and stronger tomorrow."

I want to go off the record, okay, because I got to get to work here shortly.