Secretary Mattis Press Gaggle En Route to Paris

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Well, on our way to France, um, for careful consultation with a close ally, we’re obviously going to be talking about Syria.  

And certainly… I hope these things work, because the engines are so loud back here.  But, we’ll be talking to France about Syria, and we’ll be talking a lot about Barkhane, Operation Barkhane, that’s their operation down in Africa.  Clearly, Boko Haram is under increasing pressure.  And I want to get more of their views on it.  

Is it internal? Is it the external pressure? You know, what, just make certain I’m fully-aligned with what they’re leading down there, and it’s in preparation of course, for our meeting, for our meeting, our Ministers of Defense meeting in Brussels this week. 

Oldest treaty ally, as you know.  There’s a reason there’s a bunch of French guys’ names on the statues across the street from the White House, and it continues to this day.  Our disagreements are most often on the margins. 

There are fundamental areas of agreement and collaboration, partnership, on all matters having to do with security.  

We will have discussion about how we do things, generally, but not whether or not we will do things. 

And the new French general has taken over as you know, a couple of weeks ago in Norfolk, and that continues very smooth, good French leadership at NATO Allied Command-Transformation. 

I may be meeting with President Macron as well, certainly Minister of Armed Forces Parly, and in regards to Africa and the Levant, just obviously, pay my respects for the very well-led, well-executed campaigns.  Their troops know what they’re doing, they’re well-trained, and they’re well-supported politically

Also appreciate France’s actions against Assad’s chemical weapon use, and their support for the April strike, like all the nations in the alliance, France is leading the way on increasing their money spent, their defense spending.  And last week, as you know, in America got we passed for the first time in over a dozen years our budget. So we’re walking in having walked the walk ourselves. And it’s very interesting to note that when Congress passed that record-breaking amount, with matching last year’s record-breaking amount on the European Defense Initiative.  It did not reduce one cent.
So it’s amid all the competing priorities that we have right now that shows the priority that the United States government is aligned on in terms of our iron-clad commitment to the trans-Atlantic unity and European security.  Now with democracies on both sides of the Atlantic mirroring increases in defense spending.  Minister Parly and I were going to meet, by the way, in Norfolk a couple weeks ago for the change of command, and we know how that hurricane interrupted that.  But, it does show that NATO adapts easily, whatever comes our way. 

Moving on to the NATO ministerial, we're going to be -- It's probably too soon to say we’ve completed things coming out of the Summit because we met a few months ago.  Much of the implementation is underway. The chiefs of defense met last week to confirm this, and give added detail underneath the decisions of the Summit. And so it was a very substantive summit. A lot of things came out of it, and the most productive I’ve ever been to. And some said who’ve been there a lot longer than me, the most productive they’ve been to. The four-30s for example- the 30 air squadrons, 30 ships, 30 battalions in under 30 days.  We will obviously not have that allocated out at all, but the chiefs of defense addressed it, and what it would actually look like, militarily, so I’m sure we can move forward on that and continue it on its way to execution.

Command structure, reform, and improving readiness so we can reinforce and move forces. That continues. We’ve gotten a number of phone calls over the last two months about what we’re doing on these- on these scores.  We’re doing OK.  

I think every NATO ally is wide awake now to what Russia is doing. We now talk about, you know, how much they’re doing and what location. But there’s no longer a question. I think if you look back at history and put it all together about re-drawing international borders by force, the first country to do that since World War II.  They continue to foment the conflict in Ukraine. 

Really what they want is a veto authority over their neighbors’ diplomatic, economic and security decisions. So, the democracies align together, unite together and stick together. And, why Russia would be continuing to support Assad, I think it’s a mistake, but we’ll work Syria separately. 

So what questions do you have on the record, (inaudible)?

Q:  Well, I mean on NATO, one of the things that came out of the July Summit was talk about, sort of, new cyber efforts…

(Inaudible) talk about (inaudible) cyber efforts?  (Inaudible).  Cyber efforts (inaudible).  (Laughter.)  No, I'm kidding.  Cyber. I mean, inside NATO, are you expecting any kind of advancement on that front?

SEC. MATTIS:  Inside NATO, there’s been a fair amount of individual states, as you know, when they've got the center of excellence, and we all send (inaudible) 
Estonia. The NATO defense college in Rome now teaches, you know, this as part of the curriculum. Bilaterally, we do a lot. This could get into very sensitive issues for countries, so once in a while they work a bilaterally with each other over there  And we share it all amongst us. And certainly, we work bilaterally with many of them.  

Katie, what are we doing on cyber?

STAFF:  I think that, looking at it, NATO wants to see what more can be done with cyber capabilities within the Alliance, what more we can do as far as sharing offensive capabilities.  The challenge, of course is that it gets in to a security (inaudible) quickly, what more we can do, as an Alliance to better share information (inaudible) cyber realm. 

Q: But is there a sense of what offensive capabilities you’re talking about?

STAFF: No.

Q: But is it -- I mean, there's a -- I thought this was they were going to announce their agreement, right, because this is the meeting where they're going to announce the agreement between the U.S., the U.K. to provide cyber-capabilities to NATO.  Is that happening at this meeting?

SEC. MATTIS:  We provided through the SACEUR, I mean, SACEUR, they go to the Americans and ask for things.  And this is a normal part now, I mean, the same way they ask for airlifts and you ask for, you know, a battalion to go train here, you ask for cyber support too.  

So I'd just say it's an ongoing – it’s become a traditional military activity, you know, is basically it. Now there’s cyber officers in the various commands. I mean this is not broken out. It’s not like this needs a lot of groundbreaking, right now. I mean, I think Estonia set that thing up in 2011 if I remember, somewhere back then. And we’ve all been putting people (inaudible) Baltic Defense College, also. 

All the officers from NATO are trained to – I mean, not all the officers.  Like when a Norwegian officer walks in, they're used to this stuff now.  It's not like 10 years ago where people were still wondering what that funny guy over there does, you know.  That’s part of it.  A lot of things going on. 

Bilaterally is how we do most of it, I guess, where we go in (inaudible).

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we're doing a lot, and we just don’t make it real public, you know?

Q:  Well, do you expect that agreement to be announced or no?
STAFF: (off mic)

Q: I have a question on China.  When we talked to you the other day, you were talking about sort of ongoing efforts to try and solve this recent rift in relations, including them calling off the military talks. 

SEC. MATTIS: We’re sorting it out, yeah. 

You said that since then obviously it's been reported that you're -- that you're no longer going to go to China or any -- any potential trip to China was off.  Do you see this as – are the things going to be getting any worse before they get better, or how do you see this?

SEC. MATTIS:  We -- there's tension points in the relationship, but based on discussions coming out of New York last week, and other things that we have coming up, we do not see it getting worse.  We’re just going to have to learn how to manage this relationship.  By "we" I mean "we" -- China and us -- plus other nations who are affected.  And we'll sort this out.

Q:  How are you going to sort it out? I mean, one of the issues that comes up is Taiwan, for example, and there was a recent sale to the Taiwanese (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Our policy on Taiwan has not changed.  And One China (inaudible) memorandum. It has not changed.  So we've just got to sort out, and I've said before, when we step on each other's toes how we're going to deal with it.  And we'll do that; we'll sort it out.

Q:  Do you think they are more or less open right now to military talks?

SEC. MATTIS:  More or less what?

Q:  Open, to military talks right now, considering the couple of little stumbles the last couple of weeks.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I don't talk to the press about this, because it makes it -- it's got to be filtered and all. I'll talk to my counterpart directly when the time is right.  And the secretary of state will lead this effort, and we'll sort it out.

Q:  Is this a natural part of, I guess a true great power competition, is it something that (inaudible)?  Or is this something exacerbated by events?

SEC. MATTIS:  I just think it’s part of reality. I mean, we’re two, as you said, great powers.  We're two Pacific Ocean nations.  We have various issues, and you know, diplomatic; economic; security. We’re going to have to find ways to work them out. And we will.

Q:  (Inaudible) On an unrelated note, one on Iran? There’s obviously, the consulate in Basrah is being closed. There's been tensions between Tehran and Washington.  Ambassador Bolton had some strong words at the U.N. for Tehran.

Are you concerned the direction that’s heading in? Because a lot of observers see that relationship heading towards a path that could lead to military conflict?

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that last part again.

Q:  A lot of analysts are concerned that the trajectory is heading toward military conflict.

SEC. MATTIS:  Iran’s trajectory has worried every nation in the region, to one degree or another, except for Syria, where they have been fully committed to keeping Assad and his murderous regime in power.  So when you find concerns about a nation, from Europe where there was an attempted murder of an Iranian opposition group in France.  

When you see Arab nations suspicious and finding Iranian support for Houtis and firing weapons, missiles into Saudi Arabia and at civilian towns.  When you see attempted bombing of UAE, when Israel is concerned about them, you have to sit back and say, wait a minute.  France is a different country, than the Arab monarchies, which are different from Israel, and they all have the same concern.

So is the trajectory that Iran is taking on the wrong track?  Absolutely.  And this has been the case for many years.  This is not new.

What is new is that Iran appears resistant to any sort of restraint on doing this kind of activity.  And so that is probably going to earn them increasing distrust and increasing concern.  And this is an international concern with Iran is the way I would characterize it.

Q:  Restrained from who? Restrained from who, I guess? You’re saying that Iran doesn’t seem to be listening to the restraint that’s being put on them. (Inaudible). Is it Russia? Who are they not listening to? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry, I had (inaudible) airplane.

Q:  You talked about Iran not listening to the restraints that are being put on them.  Who are you referring to?  Is it Russia that they’re not listening to?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'd prefer not to answer that right now, OK.  But I think if you look at -- if you look at this, you're seeing a country that is certainly under pressure from its own citizens, and from the amount of -- of ill will they're creating from numerous nations. And so you have to look at that as the fundamental problem.  And they are going to have to decide do they want to offer in the best interests of their people, or they want to stay a revolutionary regime, exporting the revolution. That is the fundamental question here. And if they decide it's concern about their people, there’s are a lot of things that will stop happening in other people's countries, we'll see.

Q: Do you -- How does this also fold into what's going on in Syria around Idlib, there's this effort to set up a demilitarized zone there, but Iran is also a key player there?  How do you think this will -- this will affect that effort?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know how much Iran had to do with this Idlib agreement.  I think that this was largely something that Turkey, for its own legitimate security concerns was worried about, and needed it to have a plan to address.  

I don't -- I don't want to get too deep into an assessment of that complex situation in Idlib. And I'm not sure about what level of Iranian integration into the plan exists.

STAFF:  Sir, do you want to go off the record?

Q:  Can you just address -- Turkey talked about the joint patrols beginning soon the other day.  They said that the joint patrols with the U.S. would start soon, and talked about mid-October.  Do you think that's an appropriate -- is that an accurate timeline?  And do you think the training has gone on well enough? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah. You mean for Manbij?

Q:  Yes.

SEC. MATTIS:  I mean, the Manbij forward line of troops?

Q:  Yes.

SEC. MATTIS:  The training, I believe, is underway.

STAFF:  Yes, they, we just got to an agreement last week on some final issues.

SEC. MATTIS:  The training now is under way, and we'll just have to see how that goes.  We have every reason to think the joint patrols will be coming on time and the training syllabus is in place so that we do it right.

But we are working in very close collaboration with Turkey right now.

Q:  What are your, sort of, expectations as that unfolds?  What do you want to see there?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I don't want to -- I don't want to forecast that, but I will say that the whole reason why we’ve been very -- the Turkish army and the Coalition militaries have  been very, very focused on the training aspects, because this is how you make things happen right, and by good training, thorough training. And I'll just tell you that the Turkish military has been very helpful in this regard, very professional, on setting the rules of engagement, and the training up.  

We're on the ground there now.  The equipment, as you know, is moved in ahead of time, so there will not be any delay once the decision is made to move forward.  So the training now has begun.

Q:  Can I ask you just one more little follow-up on China?  Were you disappointed...

SEC. MATTIS:  On China?

Q:  On China.

Were you disappointed that you're trip was not going to happen?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I don't -- I don't -- I keep my personal feelings for my girlfriend.

STAFF:  Sir, (inaudible) off the record.