'Saudi is from my perspective ... a strategic partner in the region': Lloyd Austin

Martha Raddatz interviews Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on "This Week."
8:13 | 03/07/21

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Transcript for 'Saudi is from my perspective ... a strategic partner in the region': Lloyd Austin
I understand and respect the reservations that some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the department of defense. The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces. The subordination of military power to the civil. I spent my entire life committed to that principle. Retired general Lloyd Austin at his confirmation hearing to become the nation's first black defense secretary. Now on the job just over six weeks, we sat down to discuss the obstacles facing the military across the Middle East, the covid pandemic and extremism within the ranks. But I began by asking about his transition from army four-star general to civilian chief of the armed forces. Lloyd Austin's years in uniform stretched from the halls of west point to the battlefields of Iraq where I shared a ride out of Baghdad with him back in 2011. How does your combat experience, your 41 years in uniform, guide you now as a civilian leader? You certainly come into the position with a great appreciation of the complexities of combat and you also have an appreciation for the impact that combat has not only the country you're fighting in but also on the resources of the countries that are actually fighting. You know, we want to lead with diplomacy in every case, but if deterrence fails you must fight to win. You want to make sure that your troops are properly resourced, properly trained, and focused the right way so that they cannot only win but win decisively. Reporter: During his 41 years in the army, it wasn't just combat that tested Austin, he broke through many racial barriers along the way. I can remember going to a bus station with my mother and looking at the restrooms that were male, female, and colored. That's kind of how we started -- how I started as a child and to be able to rise to a position of secretary of defense in my lifetime is quite incredible. But you have to ask yourself, you know, why it took so long to have an African-American second secretary of defense. What we want to make sure happens going forward that I'm not the last African-American secretary of defense. That we create those opportunities in our ranks for African-Americans and hispanics to rise to the very highest ranks in our military. Reporter: And to that end, battling extremism is high on his agenda. I want to turn to January 6th, more than 40 veterans have been arrest from that day, you have asked for a one-day stand-down for everyone to talk about extremism, what are you hearing in terms of extremism in the ranks? I just got an initial brief back from our service secretaries on how they're conducting the stand-down, they're all going about it ia different way as you would expect. A great initiative. They're all doing great work. They're having some really in-depth conversations with their troops on values, on the oath that we took, on the importance of unit cohesion, this is not about political parties or political beliefs, this is behavior that can really tear at the fabric of our institution and so we want to make sure that our troops are reminded of what our values are, reminded of the oath that we took coming in and my belief, my strong belief, Martha, is that 99.9% of our troops embrace those values and are focused on the right things and are doing the right things each and every day. I want to move to Iraq, this week we saw a second significant attack with those ten rockets. Do you know who did it and what kind of responses might we expect? Well, we're still developing the intelligence, we're encouraging the Iraqis to move as fast as they can to investigate the incident and they are doing that. But you can expect that we'll always hold people accountable for their act, we want to make sure that, again, we understand who's responsible for this, the message to those that would carry out such an attack is that, you know, expect us to do what's necessary to defend ourselves. We'll strike if that's what we think we need to do. At a time and a place of our choosing. We demand the right to protect our troops. Has Iran been given the message that this is not an escalation when we retaliate? I think Iran is fully capable of assessing, you know, the strike and our activities and they'll draw their own conclusions. But what they should draw from this, again, is that we're going to defend our troops and our response will be thoughtful, it will be appropriate, we would hope that they would choose to do the right things. And I want to talk about Saudi. You said last week you had a good call with your counterpart, the defense ministry, who happens to be mbs, the crown prince, who the U.S. Had approved the kill or capture of Jamal khashoggi. How do you deal with a counterpart like that? Our president has been clear that we'll have a different type of relationship with the Saudis going forward and it doesn't mean that it won't be a good relationship, I fully expect that it will be a good relationship, but it will be a bit different. My focus is to defend this country and protect our interests and Saudi is, you know, from my perspective, it is a strategic partner in the region. And certainly we have security commitments in that area and it's necessary that we're going to have to work together to make sure that we achieve our goals and objectives, but I think just because you have a good strategic relationship with an ally or a partner it doesn't mean that you can't hold them accountable for various things. He was not sanctioned. He was not punished. You know, everything that we do, in the U.S., we're going to lead with our values, but we're going to protect our interests. On China, you just published your priorities for the force and you specifically call out China. China has been busy modernizing its military and developing capabilities and close the competitive edge. They've also been very aggressive in the region and in some cases they've been cohergs. Our allies are very important to us. You said in your priorities that the greatest domestic threat to our security is covid. I know that FEMA has asked for a hundred teams to go out there, you're up at about 18, what can we expect in the coming weeks? The military has significant capability, capacity, and we can add speed and skill to any anything that we endeavor that take part in. I've visited the troops out there vaccinating and it's really remarkable to see not only how our troops feel about what they're doing but also how the American public responds to the interaction with our troops, it's just amazing. Just fantastic. Thanks very much, secretary. Thanks, Martha. And our thanks to secretary Austin.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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