Pentagon's Mattis again seeks to reassure
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[August 19, 2017]
By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary
Jim Mattis travels to the Middle East and eastern Europe next week to
play the increasingly familiar role of reassuring allies that the United
States is committed to them despite mixed messages from President Donald
Mattis will visit Jordan, Turkey, and Ukraine to address concerns about
the fight against Islamic State and give a message that Washington will
not tolerate Russia's annexation of eastern Ukraine.
The informal portfolio of soothing traditional U.S. friends upset by
Trump's often sharp comments and tweets on foreign policy is one that
the retired Marine general is becoming used to.
"There is no-one in the administration, maybe with the exception of Vice
President Mike Pence, that has to shoulder the responsibility of Trump's
rhetoric more than Mattis," said Joshua Walker, a former U.S. diplomat
and current fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a
Earlier this month, Trump said that a U.S. military option was being
considered for Venezuela as the country is torn by political and
economic upheaval. Within a few hours, the Pentagon publicly announced
that it had not received any orders on Venezuela, lowering the
Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, sent a conciliatory
message to North Korea last weekend in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street
Journal after Trump had threatened "fire and fury" if Pyongyang tried to
attack the United States.
The two officials wrote that the United States "has no interest in
regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea," addressing some of
North Korea's fears that Washington ultimately intends to replace its
"It is certainly true that to some extent if you look at both Mattis and
Tillerson, who travel a lot, they are both explainers and people who
both manage to moderate and reassure," said Anthony Cordesman at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Mattis served as the head of U.S. military's Central Command from 2010
to 2013, and foreign leaders, especially in the Middle East, trust him,
On a trip to Iraq earlier this year, Mattis grabbed headlines when he
said the U.S. military was not there to "seize anybody's oil."
That was an attempt to calm Iraqi worries after Trump had told CIA staff
in January, when referring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: "We
should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you'll have another chance."
Trump has also upset NATO allies by demanding they increase their
defense spending and by seeking better relations with Russia.
"I do think that Secretary Mattis finds himself spending time, putting
President Trump's statements into a broader context... in some cases
that does mean defining them more narrowly, or more precisely as to what
they mean," Christine Wormuth, a former number three at the Pentagon,
[to top of second column]
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, with his Japanese counterparts,
participates in a news conference after their U.S.-Japan Security
talks at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 17, 2017.
A TRIP TO REASSURE
On the trip that starts this weekend, Mattis will make the first
visit to Ukraine by a U.S. secretary of defense since 2007. He will
try to reassure Kiev that the United States remains committed to
restoring Ukraine's sovereignty after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Questions were raised when Tillerson said in June that the Trump
administration did not wish to be "handcuffed" by the 2015 Minsk
accord to end fighting in Ukraine.
That agreement, signed by Russia and Ukraine, calls for a ceasefire,
the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and
constitutional reform to give eastern Ukraine more autonomy.
While it is not a close U.S. ally, Ukraine has counted on American
support against Russia since a pro-Western government took power
following street protests in 2014 that ousted a Kremlin-backed
Trump's comments during the election campaign last year, from praise
of Russian President Vladimir Putin to appearing to recognize Crimea
as part of Russia and contemplating an end to U.S. sanctions on
Moscow, stoked fears in Kiev that Trump would mend ties with Russia
at Ukraine's expense.
The Pentagon is awaiting White House approval for a proposal to send
"defensive" weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, a U.S.
Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense
for the region, said the trip would be important because it would
send a signal to Kiev that the United States remained committed and
the approval of the lethal weapons would be a tangible sign of that.
"Mattis believes that this is a security issue that goes beyond
Europe, that this is about international norms, sovereignty and
territorial integrity," Carpenter said.
The Pentagon says Mattis will also emphasize the commitment of the
United States to Turkey and help Ankara "address its legitimate
security concerns- including the fight against the (Kurdistan
However, Mattis will have to address a number of differences,
including the Pentagon's decision to arm Kurdish YPG fighters to
support an operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic
Ankara views the YPG, fighting within a larger U.S.-backed
coalition, as the Syrian extension of the Kurdish PKK militant
group, which it is fighting in southeastern Turkey.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Alistair Bell)
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