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U.K. Defense Secretary 'Looking Forward' To Working With Mattis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump told supporters at a rally this week that he plans to nominate retired Marine General James Mattis as his defense secretary. General Mattis retired as chief of U.S. Central Command just two years ago, and that's raised questions about whether the appointment so soon after his active service adheres to the spirit of civilian control over the military in this country. We will ask where that tradition comes from in just a few minutes this hour.

But first, a newsmaker conversation with the man who will be General Mattis' British counterpart should the general win Senate approval. Sir Michael Fallon is the secretary of state for defence for the U.K. He's visiting the U.S. - the first visit from a British cabinet minister since the U.S. elections last month. He was kind enough to join us on Friday just off the plane at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MICHAEL FALLON: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So we now know who you will likely be working with in the Trump administration - General Mattis. As I mentioned, he most recently led the Central Command which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And I just wondered if you'd ever met him or had a chance to speak with him.

FALLON: I haven't met him myself, personally, yet. I'm looking forward to doing that. And let me congratulate him on his nomination and wish him well during the confirmation process. He is well known to our military. He's served, as you've said, in a number of commands and has also served with the NATO alliance. So our military are looking forward to working with him, and I'm looking forward to working with him because we're at a critical point now in the battle against ISIL in the Middle East, the need to stand up to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and in many other trouble spots around the world, including Afghanistan.

MARTIN: There's been so much change in the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic. I mean, certainly with Brexit on the U.K. side and then with the incoming Trump administration. Mr. Trump has espoused some very different views from our current president. For one thing, he's been a critic of NATO, at least he was while he was on the campaign trail. How is that received on your end? How do you hear that?

FALLON: Well, we think he's got a point with his criticisms of NATO. First, he wants European countries to shoulder more of the burden and so do we. He's also, I think, made some criticisms of the NATO machinery. And, again, there were a number of reforms agreed back at the Wales and now the Warsaw summits this year to speed up the NATO decision-making, to cut through some of their bureaucracy and make sure that it can deploy its forces faster than it's been able to do before. So we're with president-elect on some of these criticisms.

MARTIN: You also mentioned the battle against ISIL. Right now, U.S. and British forces are supporting Iraqi troops in the battle of Mosul. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump said the offensive has been a disaster. He said the American leaders planning it were quote, "a group of losers for not launching a surprise attack." So two questions here. What is your view of the offensive? And given that Mr. Trump will be the commander in chief of American forces in about a month and a half or so, do you expect strategic changes in this broader campaign?

FALLON: Well, if I can take the second one first, I think you have to aim off some of the campaign rhetoric, stuff he said during campaigns. That doesn't always translate through. I think Mario Cuomo famously said you campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose. And I'm not going to accuse President-elect Trump of perjury, but I think you can aim off some of the campaign rhetoric. And we'll judge the president-elect on what he says and what he does.

Now, you asked me where the campaign is. The campaign in Iraq, the campaign is going well thanks to all the training that we and the United States have done and thanks to the airstrikes that we're putting in on top of the ground combat forces. In Syria, the campaign is not going well, but that's because of the civil war, which has still not been brought to an end and, at the moment, is beyond our power to bring it to an end because it is Russia that is the key to the Syrian regime there.

MARTIN: You've been secretary of state for defence since 2014, if I have that right.

FALLON: That's right.

MARTIN: And this has been a time of increased tensions, you know, all over the world, really. I mean, we've seen, you know, the increased strength of - the rise, really, of ISIS or ISIL, as you've said. We've seen increased aggression from Russia. There's been a trend toward - how can I say - a more assertive nationalism in many countries around the world. And I think many people would argue that the Brexit vote was part of that. Many people might argue that Donald Trump's election was a part of that. I wondered whether this sort of more assertive nationalism has changed your job.

FALLON: I don't think it's the rise of populism or nationalism itself. I think there are just a number of concurrent threats out there. And I draw the opposite conclusion, which is we should not withdraw individually into our shells. On the contrary, we should work harder at the partnerships and the alliances that bind us together. So the threats that are coming against us are international, and that's why the response has to be international as well, built around the key alliances that we have.

MARTIN: That was Sir Michael Fallon. He is the secretary of state for defence for the U.K. We reached him on Friday as he passed through Los Angeles. Sir Michael, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FALLON: Thank you. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.