Trump's picks for state secretary and defence secretary contradict him on strategic issues

Retired Marine General James "Mad Dog" Mattis becomes the latest potential member of Donald Trump's cabinet to take a harder line on Russia.
President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on Jan 11, 2017 in New York City.
President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on Jan 11, 2017 in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Toughness with Russia and China, support of the Iran nuclear deal, the quest for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Mr Donald Trump's diplomacy and military picks have outlined the incoming administration's foreign policy in Senate confirmation hearings this week.

And on many strategic issues, in particular the president-elect's desire for improved ties with Russia, Mr Rex Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil chosen as secretary of state, and retired Marine General James Mattis, picked for defence secretary, have contradicted Mr Trump in the hearings on Wednesday and Thursday.

Taking a stance resolutely at odds with Mr Trump, Mr Tillerson and Gen Mattis lobbed criticisms at Russian President Vladimir Putin. The retired US general was particularly harsh, in an effort perhaps to reassure Republican senators who are uneasy about the next occupier of the White House's conciliatory attitude toward the Kremlin chief.

He accused the Russian president of "trying to break the North Atlantic alliance." And Mr Tillerson said: "Our Nato allies are right to be alarmed at resurgent Russia." He even noted that Russia "poses a danger" to US and European interests.

In the eyes of the Pentagon nominee Mattis, Russia "has chosen to be a strategic competitor."

Their bellicose statements have clashed with those of the next US president, who takes office on Jan 20.

Mr Trump has repeatedly praised the intelligence of Mr Putin, and said on Wednesday that if the Russian leader "likes" him it would be an "asset" to help repair the strained US-Russian relationship.

Former Cold War foes, the United States and Russia have had turbulent ties since 2012, notably because of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Both nominees also took a stern line with China, the US rival in the Asia-Pacific, a region made a diplomatic and economic priority by the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama.

The United States will send "a clear signal" to China that it must stop building islands in the South China Sea and Washington will block its access to those islands, Mr Tillerson said.

The island-building , which the Obama administration has long criticised, is illegal and "akin to Russia's taking of Crimea," said the nominated top diplomat.

Gen Mattis was even fiercer. "China is shredding trust" with its Asian neighbours, he said, warning that China could "act contrary to our interests." .

The international agreement reached in July 2015 to control Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions is viewed as a major diplomatic success for Mr Obama. His successor Trump has promised to "dismantle" the "disastrous" accord.

Gen Mattis, who is known for his deep hostility toward Iran and called the agreement "imperfect," nevertheless said: "But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."

He, however, will ask Congress to monitor any breach of it by Teheran.

Gen Mattis also seemed to put space between himself and Mr Trump, who has vowed to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and considers the disputed Holy City the capital.

"What's the capital of Israel?" asked a senator in the confirmation hearing.

"The capital of Israel I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv," Gen Mattis responded.

He also voiced support for a two-state solution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Tillerson criticised the UN Security Council resolution on Dec 23 that condemned Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian territories and demanded it stop. The measure was approved unanimously thanks to the abstention of the United States.

He voiced other differences with his would-be boss, saying he would ensure the United States continue to pursue nuclear non-proliferation - "one of the vital roles" of the country - and work to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on the planet.

As for climate change, which Mr Trump has suggested was a hoax, Mr Tillerson told senators "the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken."

"I think it's important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address threats of climate change, which do require a global response," he said.