Biden's defense secretary pick pledges 'rid our ranks of racists and extremists'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Retired Army General Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that he would work to rid "racists and extremists" from the ranks of the U.S. military, mend alliances and focus strategically on China if confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden's defense secretary.

Austin would become America's first Black defense secretary and he has declared his intention to improve diversity within the U.S. military, which is diverse in the lower ranks but largely white and male at the top.

Pentagon data show a large number of minority servicemembers experience racial harassment and discrimination, and this month's siege of the Capitol by far-right extremists has thrown a spotlight on supporters of such ideologies within the U.S. armed forces.

"If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity," Austin said at his confirmation hearing.

"The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Austin's remarks came minutes after the Pentagon confirmed that 12 members of the National Guard had been removed from duty ahead of Democrat Biden's inauguration on Wednesday following vetting, which included scrubbing them for ties to extremism.

Austin would require a waiver from Congress since he has not been out of uniform long enough, a rule meant to safeguard civilian control of the U.S. armed forces. The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote on Thursday on whether to grant the waiver, according to the chamber's schedule.

He repeatedly voiced his intention to empower civilians at the Pentagon and ensure support to civilian diplomats guiding U.S. foreign policy.

"I will make clear my expectation that the Pentagon work hand in glove with the State Department, supporting the work of our diplomats," he said.

Austin said he would focus strategically on Asia, and China, in particular. Asked about China's goal of developing a military that is superior to that of the United States, Austin said he aimed to work to ensure that "never happens."

Experts say America's military needs to bolster military alliances to compete with China. Some of those alliances, including with South Korea and NATO, were strained under outgoing President Donald Trump.

Austin said he looked forward to "refurbishing alliances."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

01/19/2021 21:32

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