Lloyd Austin, a retired US general nominated by president-elect Joe Biden as defence chief, pledged on Tuesday to rid the US military "of racists and extremists".
Testifying in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen Austin said sexual assault, racism and extremism were problems he would fight hard to eliminate at the Pentagon.
“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,” he said.
“The job of the Department of Defence is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Gen Austin advocated more communication between military leaders and their subordinates to counter the threat of racism and extremism in the military.
“I think that we have to train our leaders to make sure that they are in touch with the people they are leading ... what they are doing, what they are reading,” he said.
“Training needs to go on routinely because things change.”
The retired general emphasised that US military values must be followed.
“Failure to adhere to those values means you should not be part of our formation,” he said.
The comments came only hours after the Department of Defence said a dozen members of the US National Guard had been removed from helping secure the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden over vetting concerns.
In two cases, they related to ties to right-wing extremism.
On Sunday, acting defence secretary Chris Miller said the FBI was helping the US military vet more than 25,000 National Guard troops being sent to protect Washington.
The US Department of Justice said last week it was investigating police officers who took part in the deadly attacks on the Capitol on January 6 while off duty.
“We don’t care what your profession is, who you are, who you are affiliated with. If you are conducting or engaged in criminal activity, we will charge you and you will be arrested,” acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said on Friday.
Gen Austin, if confirmed by the Senate, will be the first black head of defence in US history and the third retired general since 1947 to hold the position. But he will need a waiver from Congress because he left the military only four years ago. The rules require seven years to have passed before members of the armed forces take on civilian government positions.
On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee cancelled its public hearing for the waiver and will instead brief Gen Austin behind closed doors.
“Iran continues to be a destabilising element in the region ... it doesn’t work well with its neighbours. It does present a threat to our partners and those forces we have in the region,” said Gen Austin, who was previously head of US Central Command.
“If Iran were to get a nuclear capability, most every problem we deal with in the region would be tougher because of that. Iran’s behaviour continues to be destabilising,” he said. But he said he shared the Biden team’s view that if Iran upholds its commitments under the nuclear deal, the US would return to the agreement and would discuss issues related to the sunset clause and ballistic missiles.
When asked about the Abraham Accord and four Arab countries normalising relations with Israel, Gen Austin called it a “good thing”.
“I think that any time that countries agree to normalise relations, that’s a good thing. I think certainly this has put a bit more pressure on Iran and I hope it will have good effects,” he said.
But it was clear from his comments that the primary focus will be on Asia and not the Middle East. “Asia must be the focus of our effort and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the [Defence] Department,” he said.
He said China’s goal “is to be the dominant world power” but that the US “will present a credible deterrent to China or any adversary that wishes to take us on”.