By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to become his top uniformed military adviser told Congress on Thursday that he would not be "intimidated into making stupid decisions," saying he would always give his best advice, regardless of pressure.
The remarks by Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley during a line of questioning about his ability to stand his ground in the Oval Office is likely to reassure Trump's critics in Congress, who worry about the risk of impulsive decisions by the president on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and beyond.
Still, Milley never referred directly to Trump nor suggested that he expected to face any such pressure when he said he would "absolutely not" allow himself to be intimidated.
"I'll give my best military advice. It will be candid. It will be honest ... every single time," Milley told the Senate Armed Service Committee during his hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he would take on Oct. 1.
Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine who caucuses with Senate Democrats, responded by explaining why the top U.S. military officer must feel empowered to correct a president or explain something that ran counter to the president's desired course of action.
Milley replied by saying he and other Pentagon leaders, including Marine General Joseph Dunford, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had seen a lot of combat and knew the costs of war.
"We've buried these soldiers. Arlington (National Cemetery) is full of our comrades," he told King at the hearing.
"We know what this is about and we are not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions. We will give our best military advice regardless of consequences to (ourselves)."
Milley is widely respected among Democrats and Republicans in Congress and is seen easily winning Senate confirmation. U.S. officials also say he has a good rapport with Trump, who first announced his plans to nominate Milley last year, months earlier than expected.
TENSIONS WITH IRAN
Milley would take over as the Pentagon's top military officer at a time when critics in Congress are accusing Trump of politicizing the military, including with his deployment of U.S. troops to the Mexico border.
It also comes as tensions simmer with Iran. Last month, Iran shot down a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz, prompting Trump to order retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off.
In the hearing, Milley declined to discuss military planning on Iran but dismissed a question from a Republican senator who asked whether there was any discussions of sending 150,000 U.S. troops to counter Iran.
"I don't think anyone is seriously considering anything approaching" that figure, he replied.
Three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the strait that controls the flow of Middle East oil to the world, but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship, Britain said on Thursday.
Milley said there appeared to be an attempt by small naval vessels to "take over" a British commercial vessel.
"Freedom of navigation is a fundamental principle and a norm for the international order that has been in place now for seven decades, and we have a crucial role to enforce that norm," Milley said.
If confirmed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Milley would not be expected to usher in any major strategic shifts for the U.S. military. His views on the threats from Russia and China are in step with Pentagon top brass and the Trump administration.
As Army chief, Milley last year launched the Army's Futures Command, which looks at ways to usher in a new generation of advanced weaponry to preserve the United States' narrowing edge against potential adversaries like China and Russia.
Another of Milley's innovations at the Army was last year's creation of special brigades to help advise local forces in counterinsurgency wars, including the nearly 18-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Milley told the hearing that a premature exit from Afghanistan would be a mistake but noted "some progress" in efforts to find a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
The United States and the Taliban are getting closer to a deal that is expected to be centred on a U.S. plan to withdraw troops in exchange for a Taliban promise not to let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism, officials say.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by Nick Zieminski and Jonathan Oatis)