Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s extensive military career has not only prepared him for the roles that diplomacy and deterrence play in American foreign policy, but also for how to tackle race and extremism issues head-on in the military, he said in ABC’s “This Week” show on Sunday. .
Overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate as President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, Austin overcame initial concerns raised by members of Congress about the nomination of another recently retired military leader to office.
But Austin said his 41 years in uniform have helped him not only appreciate “the complexities of combat,” but also the importance of diplomacy.
“We want to lead with diplomacy in all cases,” said Austin, “This Week” co-host Martha Raddatz. “But if deterrence fails, then you must fight. You fight to win.”
“You want to make sure your troops have the right resources, the right training and the right concentration so that they can not only win, but decisively as well,” he said.
The historic importance of being the first African American to serve as secretary of defense is not lost on Austin, who said he still remembers seeing separate toilets at a bus station growing up in the Deep South.
“This is how I started as a kid and moving up – being able to move up – to a secretary of defense position in my life is pretty incredible,” Austin said. “But you have to wonder, you know, why did it take so long to get to have an African-American secretary of defense.”
Austin said he will seek to create opportunities for African Americans and Latinos who serve in the military so that they can rise to the higher ranks and ensure “that I am not the last African American secretary of defense.”
Another key aspect of their agenda is to educate the military on the issue of extremism in the ranks and to emphasize the constitutional ideals they have sworn to uphold.
While he believes that “99.9% of our troops embrace those values and are focused on the right things and are doing the right things every day,” a month ago he ordered US military units around the world to take a day to discuss extremism.
Military leaders are already “having very deep conversations with their troops about values, about the oath we took, about the importance of unit cohesion,” Austin said.
“This is not about political parties or political beliefs,” Austin said. “This is behavior that can really tear the fabric of our institution apart. That is why we want to make sure that our troops are reminded of what our values are, they are reminded of the oath we took upon entering.”
On the world stage, Austin has already been called upon to provide Biden with his expertise in the Middle East, as tensions have risen in Iraq with US forces under rocket attack from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Last week, in the first military action of his presidency, Biden ordered a retaliatory airstrike on a facility in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias blamed for rocket attacks on US facilities.
But days later, 10 rockets were fired at the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq that is home to many of the 2,500 soldiers still in Iraq. No service member was injured in the attack, but an American civilian contractor died of a heart attack while taking refuge from the incoming rockets.
Austin told Raddatz that the United States is still assessing who was behind the rocket attack on US forces at the Ain al-Asad air base that took place days after the US airstrike.
If the United States decides to retaliate against the militias again, Austin said it would be “at the time and place of our choosing.”
“You can expect that we will always hold people accountable for their actions,” Austin said. “We demand the right to protect our troops.”
And Austin said that, as the main backers of the militia, Iran “is fully capable of assessing” and drawing its own conclusions about the intentions of the US airstrike.
“What they should get out of this again is that we are going to defend our troops,” Austin said. “Our response will be thoughtful.”
“We hope they choose to do the right things.”
Part of Austin’s job description is interacting with top leaders of America’s military allies and partners.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, that presents an interesting situation since the Saudi defense minister is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who last week was implicated by US intelligence for approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Our president has made it clear that we will have a different kind of relationship with the Saudis in the future,” Austin said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t be a good relationship; I hope it’s a good relationship, but it will be a little different.”
Austin noted that while he understands the importance of working with Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner in the Middle East, “it doesn’t mean you can’t hold them accountable for several things.”
“We will lead with our values, but we will protect our interests,” he replied when asked why the crown prince was not among the Saudis sanctioned by the Biden administration for Khashoggi’s death.
Austin has described the coronavirus pandemic as a threat to national security and has made it a priority for the US military to assist civil authorities.
In addition to thousands of National Guard members and active duty troops assisting in COVID-19 response efforts, Austin has authorized the use of 6,235 active duty members to assist with vaccinations at mass vaccination centers throughout the United States. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The military has significant capability, and we can add speed and scale to anything we try to participate in,” Austin said. “I have gone out to visit our troops who are vaccinating.”
“It is truly extraordinary to see not only how our troops feel about what they are doing, but also how the American public responds to interaction with our troops,” Austin said. “It’s just amazing, just fantastic.”