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Former Colleague Supports Retired Gen. Austin, Biden Pick To Lead Pentagon

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a Senate committee holds a confirmation hearing for Lloyd Austin. He is President-elect Biden's choice for one of the biggest jobs in government - secretary of Defense. Austin would need a special waiver for that job because it is a civilian role, and he is a recently retired general. But a former colleague says that experience is a benefit. Retired General Gregory Newbold worked with Austin years ago.

GREGORY NEWBOLD: When the generals come to him with advice, he will know two and three layers deep. And there won't be a question whether he knows whether it's good advice or not.

INSKEEP: When General Newbold was working a senior job at the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin was a younger colonel in his office.

NEWBOLD: I probably had 20 colonels who worked in the director of operations, and there was no question Lloyd was the leader of that group. Very serious individual - he's a team player, he's not a grandstander, but when Lloyd talked, people listened.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that you were both, of course, still serving when the invasion of Iraq was approaching in 2002, 2003. Some people will know that you disagreed with the approach to that invasion and retired partly as a result. Lloyd Austin made a different decision. He went to Iraq. He commanded a division there in the invasion. He eventually commanded all U.S. forces in Iraq. How did each of you come to those differing decisions?

NEWBOLD: Well, actually, I wouldn't describe them as different decisions. I would have done exactly what he did. And I envied his selection to lead in an operational environment because your duty, then, is to do the best job you can for the young soldiers or, in my case, the young Marines. So that is exactly what he should have done. And I was comforted that he did it. My responsibility was a different one. And that is that I had to foresee the consequences for the country and for those same young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And I thought my duty was to speak up.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you had a more senior position and therefore could make your voice heard. He was in a more junior position and needed to do the best he could.

NEWBOLD: I think that's a good description.

INSKEEP: How do you think the experience of going to war in Iraq influenced American soldiers in the way that they thought about the challenges they would face?

NEWBOLD: For a person like Lloyd Austin, I'm comforted by the fact that he knows the consequences of conflict. And as we say in the military, loyalty goes both up and down. And for the young members of the service, they pay that loyalty and are willing to pay it with full consequences. But they have full expectation that their senior leaders will look out for them and ensure that their sacrifices are worthy. And that's one of the reasons I'm such a fan of Lloyd Austin and believe he's the ideal person for the job at this time.

INSKEEP: Is the civilian control of the military damaged at all from the experiences particularly of the last several months?

NEWBOLD: Well, you'll remember, I was categorized as a revolting general, so there are people that would describe that time as one of civil-military divide. I would argue against that. I don't think there was ever an issue at that time or now where civilian control of the military was at all in doubt. But I would say to your question, in the last several months, there have been some issues that are unsettling and that cause people concern. We've had two secretaries of defense and an active secretary within the last two years. We've had a lot of acting principals in the Pentagon and people who have departed who were approved by the Senate. We've had the incident on Lafayette Square. We've had confusion about direction and responses to crises. And once again, I think the times dictate what we should have in the job.

INSKEEP: Retired General Gregory Newbold, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

NEWBOLD: Oh, it's my pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.