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Marine Corps Association Annual Dinner (Arlington, VA)
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel, Arlington, VA, Wednesday, July 18, 2007

        Thank you, General Palm, for that kind introduction. And let me express my appreciation to the Marine Corps Association for inviting me to speak at your first annual dinner. I’m honored to be in the presence of so many who have devoted their lives to the defense of this country.

        Senator Warner, General Magnus, it’s good to see you. I must say that Senator Warner is a special friend. He’s introduced me to the Senate for confirmation four times. [Laughter] If it’s not a record, it has to be close to a record. And I have to say the first time was more than 20 years ago. That dates us both, but I would have to say I think he is a special friend and a great American. So thank you for being here tonight. [Applause]

        Well, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to be back in Washington again. [Laughter] A place where, as Senator Alan Simpson used to say, “those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.” [Laughter] Or as others would say, “where there are so many lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.” [Laughter] Where people say I’ll double-cross that bridge when I get to it. [Laughter] The only place in the world you can see a prominent person walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand. [Laughter, Applause]

        They say Washington’s a city of monuments. I have to say the most monumental things that I’ve seen in over 40 years is the egos of some of the people I’ve worked for, and I have to tell you the most monumental ego was the first president I worked for, Lyndon Johnson.

        Johnson once had the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ludwig Erhard, to the LBJ ranch, and Erhard at one point said, “Well, Mr. President, were you born in a log cabin?” And LBJ responded, “Why no, Mr. Chancellor, I was born in a manger.” [Laughter, Applause]

        Or the time he gave a stag dinner in the White House and Bill Moyers was there and Moyers was a White House staffer seated below the salt, where White House staffers belong. [Laughter] And Johnson asked Moyers to ask the blessing and Moyers started to pray and a few seconds into the prayer, Johnson lifted his said, looked down at Moyers and said, “Bill, I can’t hear you.” And Moyers, without lifting his head, looked and said to the president, “That’s cause I’m not speaking to you.” [Laughter]

        It’s also a city of monumental embarrassments. Like the first time that President Nixon met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He had just appointed Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. And Golda Meir had with her her foreign minister, Abba Eban, who had a doctorate from Oxford University. And Nixon turned to Golda Meir and said “Just think, Madam Prime Minister, we now both have Jewish foreign ministers.” And Golda Meir looked at him and said, “Yes, but mine speaks English.” [Laughter, Applause]

        But I think the most embarrassing moment during my career was when Nixon visited Italy and he met with the Pope, and Melvin Laird was along as Secretary of Defense. Kissinger and Nixon decided that Laird shouldn’t be invited to the meeting with the Pope, as sort of the Minister of War.

        And so, Nixon was in the next morning having his private audience with the Pope, and the rest of us were waiting outside. And who should come striding down the hall smoking an enormous cigar but Laird. He had clearly found out about the meeting, probably through good military intelligence. [Laughter]

        And Kissinger was kind of beside himself, but he finally said “Well, Mel, at least extinguish the cigar.” So Laird stubbed out his cigar and put it in his pocket.

        The American party a few minutes later went in to their general meeting with the pope. Pope was seated at a little table in front, Americans in two rows of high-backed chairs. Back row, Kissinger on the end; Laird next to him. A couple of minutes into the Pope’s remarks, Kissinger heard this little patting sound, and he looked over, and there was a wisp of smoke coming out of Laird’s pocket. [Laughter] The Secretary of State thought nothing of it. A couple of other minutes went by and the secretary heard this patting sound, slapping going on, and he looked over and smoke was billowing out of Laird’s pocket. The Secretary of Defense was on fire. [Laughter]

        The American party heard this slapping, and thought they were being queued to applaud. And so they did. [Laughter]

        And Henry later told us, “God only knows what his Holiness thought, seeing the American secretary of defense immolating himself, and the entire American party applauding the fact.” [Laughter, Applause]

        Well, it’s hard to believe that it was only seven months ago – to the day, as a matter of fact – that I began my current job. And as many of you know, navigating the Pentagon can be quite a challenge.

        Newsman David Brinkley used to tell the story of the early days at the Pentagon, when woman told a Pentagon guard she was in labor and needed help quickly in getting to a hospital. The guard said, “Madam, you should not have come in here in that condition.” And she answered, “I wasn’t in that condition when I came in here.” [Laughter]

        One of the main reasons I have managed to get around – and get by – at the Department these past seven months, is a great officer who has the distinction of being the first Marine Corps Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This summer, General Peter Pace marked 40 extraordinary years of active service. Pete’s traveling overseas this evening or he would be here tonight. In fact, he told me that I should accept the invitation to this event.

        I’m sure most, if not all of you, are unhappy that Pete will not continue on for a second term as chairman. I am as well. Pete Pace has been my friend, my partner, and my mentor. I trust him completely; I value his candor; and, I enjoy his sense of humor.

        I told Pete several months ago that it was my intention that we work together until I left on January 20, 2009. I can’t tell you how much I regret that the current environment here in Washington did not make that possible. I am deeply grateful for Pete’s 40 years of devoted service to our country, a sentiment I am confident is shared by you and by all Americans.

        Last month, after visiting with U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, I had a chance to speak at Normandy on the 63rd anniversary of D-Day. It was a powerful experience to stand among those crosses – thousands of them, row upon row – and reflect on the magnitude of what had been accomplished on that day – and at what cost.

        The story behind how America developed the means to put men on those beaches is, I think, instructive. In the late 1930s, the Marine Corps was still grappling with how to move troops from ship to shore under hostile fire. At the time, and after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, such a maneuver was considered foolhardy at best, and suicidal at worst. In 1937, a Marine 1st Lieutenant, Victor Krulak, was stationed in China. And during a Japanese amphibious assault on Shanghai, Krulak borrowed a tugboat to get a better look. He saw – and clandestinely photographed – Japanese men and equipment coming onto the beach from a landing craft with a retractable ramp.

        Lieutenant Krulak sent those photos and an accompanying report back to Washington. You can imagine what happened next. They gathered dust in a cabinet, with a note labeling them, and I quote: “the work of some nut in China.”

        Krulak eventually returned to Washington, and doggedly pursued his idea until a Marine general hooked him up with an eccentric New Orleans boat maker named Higgins. The result, as all of you know, was a landing craft with a retractable ramp that was introduced by the thousands and was used to carry Allied forces to liberate Europe and much of Asia.

        Krulak’s was, of course, a legendary career: Navy Cross; counterinsurgency advisor to the Joint Staff; commander of the Fleet Marines in the Pacific during the Vietnam War; and, father of a future Marine Commandant, Chuck Krulak, with whom I met yesterday. Victor Krulak’s story and accomplishments teach us a good deal:
  • About learning from the experiences and setbacks of the past;
  • About being open to take ideas and inspiration from wherever they come; and 
  • About overcoming conventional wisdom and bureaucratic obstacles thrown in one’s path.
        In the years since September 11th, hundreds of thousands of our troops have done all these things and more in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the globe. There are the Marines who set up a daily news report over loudspeaker – “the Voice of Ramadi” – to counter the hostile propaganda blaring out of some of the mosques. Then there is an Army staff sergeant, a field artillery radar specialist, who was elected a sheik by Iraqi village elders for his work in their communities. He was given white robes, five sheep, and some land; he was advised to take a second wife – a suggestion frowned upon by his spouse back in Florida. [Laughter]

        But in these campaigns, the men and women wearing our nation’s uniform have assumed the roles of warrior, diplomat, humanitarian, and development expert. They’ve done so under the unblinking, unforgiving eye of the 24-hour news cycle while confronting an agile and ruthless enemy. And they’ve done it serving in a military that has for decades been organized, trained, and equipped to fight the “big wars” rather than the small ones. They have shown what General Victor Krulak later wrote was the “adaptability, initiative and improvisation [that] are the true fabric of obedience, the ultimate in soldierly conduct, going further than sheer heroism.”

        For the next 10 minutes or so, I’d like to offer some thoughts on where our military – and our government – must apply the lessons that we’ve learned from the ongoing conflicts to build the capabilities we will need in the future. These points are clear:
  • Our military must be prepared to undertake the full spectrum of operations – including unconventional or irregular campaigns – for the foreseeable future.
  • The non-military instruments of America’s national power need to be rebuilt, modernized, and committed to the fight.
  • And third, we must think about, envision, and plan for, the world, the future – of 2020 and beyond.
        This is necessary because in the decades ahead, the free and civilized world will continue to look to the United States for leadership, despite all of the challenges today. Churchill once said that “the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility,” what he called the “price of greatness.” This responsibility calls on us to prepare for threats other than those on our television screen every night, challenges that are on or beyond the horizon.

        America’s conventional forces – air, land, and sea – will continue to be called on to deter cross-border aggression, protect the sea lanes and energy supplies, and send a message of strength and resolve to friends and potential enemies – be they nation-states or other actors. These formations must move with speed and agility to a range of potential fights, with deployment times measured in weeks or days rather than weeks and months.

        Above all, it’s clear the United States and our allies will continue to be threatened by violent extremists, almost always operating in countries with whom we are not at war. The ambition of these networks to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons is real, as is their desire to launch more attacks on our country and on our interests around the world. And as we saw most recently in the United Kingdom, the barrier to entry – in resources and sophistication – remains low when the goal is simply to disrupt or terrorize.

        In recent years, America has fully joined the battle in a war that was declared on us a long time ago.

        I remember vividly a day in December 1991, when as CIA Director I – along with then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney – attended an arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base. We were there to receive the remains of two men – two of our nation’s “bravest sons” – who had been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by terrorists in Lebanon. One was William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut. The other was Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins, who served with the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

        These two Americans were murdered by the same Hezbollah-linked extremists who killed hundreds of Americans in 1983 at the Marine barracks and U.S. embassy in Beirut. It is important to remember that until the morning of September 11, 2001, Hezbollah had been responsible for the deaths of more Americans, our countrymen, than any other terrorist group in the world.

        Now we must deal with an even more deadly threat. Since Al Qaeda attacked America nearly six years ago, our armed forces have been tasked with removing hostile regimes and booting out terrorist networks in Iraq and Afghanistan; initially quick military successes that in both cases have led to protracted stability and reconstruction campaigns against brutal and adaptive insurgencies.

        And though these conflicts will not last indefinitely in their current form and scale, we must expect our military to be called to other irregular campaigns in the future.

        What we now call “asymmetric war” has become a mainstay of the contemporary battlefield, if not its centerpiece. Indeed, after Desert Storm and the initial military success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is hard to conceive any country challenging the United States using conventional military ground forces – at least for some years to come.

        However, history shows us smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos.

        Today, the “three block war” that Commandant Chuck Krulak predicted in the 1990s – where small units would simultaneously conduct combat, stability, and humanitarian operations in urban landscapes – has become a daily reality for American servicemen and women. In these situations, America’s traditional edge in technology, firepower, and logistics provides important tactical advantages, but not the necessary strategic success.

        Direct force will no doubt need to be used against our adversaries – ruthlessly and without mercy or apology. But it is also clear that in these kinds of operations, we are not going to kill or capture our way to victory.

        Today in Iraq, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are implementing a strategy based on targeting Al Qaeda, co-opting some insurgents and marginalizing others, and providing basic security and an improved quality of life for the Iraqi people. It will take patience and persistence, and some level of American force and assistance, for some time.

        Looking forward, tasks such as standing up and mentoring indigenous armies and police – once the province of Special Forces – are now a key mission for the military as a whole. The same is true for mastering foreign language and civil affairs tasks such as reviving public services and promoting good governance. They have moved from the margins to the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and personnel policies, where they must stay. But as much as the armed forces must be prepared to take on these tasks, the fact remains that much of the necessary expertise belongs in other parts of our government.

        We’re still struggling to overcome the legacy of the 1990s, when so many of the key non-military capabilities in the American government – in diplomacy, strategic communications, international development, and intelligence – were slashed or eliminated following the end of the Cold War.

        During the 1990s, the State Department froze new hiring of Foreign Service officers. I was in the White House in the Carter administration after the fall of Iran, and we had a group called the political intelligence working group and we examined what had happened. And among other things, we determined that in 1979, in the embassy in Riyadh, we had two Foreign Service officers who spoke Arabic and they spent 40 percent of their time squiring around CODELs.

        The United States Information Agency, which had been an enormously successful organization for communicating America’s values and message around the world, was abolished in the 1990s as an independent entity and folded into the State Department – a shadow of its former self. The Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts – its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 to 3,000 today, becoming essentially an outsourcing and contracting agency.

        Today, the total number of U.S. government civilian employees working in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in both Iraq and Afghanistan is approximately two hundred.

        So, the goal for us must be an integrated effort, a reinvigoration of all elements of national power. It will require a serious commitment of resources and priorities from the Congress and the country. I believe we have little choice if we are to secure our nation and our freedoms in the years ahead.

        I’ve spoken tonight about what the Pentagon calls the “non-kinetic” aspects of war. It is a sad reality, however, that throughout human history, some have always thought and sought to dominate others through violence and crimes against the innocent. When all is said and done, they understand and bow not to reason or to negotiation, but only to superior force. Thus we should never lose sight of the ethos that has made the Marine Corps – where “every Marine is a rifleman” – one of America’s cherished institutions and one of the world’s most feared and respected fighting forces. [Applause]

        I began my remarks this evening with a story about an extraordinary young Marine officer, Victor Krulak; I will close with another.

        On one wall of my conference room there is a large, framed photo of a Marine company commander taken during the first battle of Fallujah, in April 2004. He’s speaking into a radio handset while giving directions to his men as combat rages just blocks away. It’s a shot that could have been taken of any number of Marines in any number of places over the last century – at Tarawa, at Inchon, or of Lieutenant Peter Pace at Hue, in 1968.

        During that Fallujah battle, Captain Douglas Zembiec and some men from his Echo Company were on a rooftop drawing rocket propelled grenades from all directions. They tried to radio a tank crew for support, but couldn’t get through. Zembiec raced out onto the street through withering fire, climbed onto the tank, and directed the gunner where to shoot.

        After the battle, he said that his Marines had “fought like lions,” and he was soon himself dubbed “the Lion of Fallujah.” [Applause] He was an unabashed and unashamed warrior, telling one reporter that “killing is not wrong if it’s for a purpose, if it’s to keep your nation free or to protect your buddy.” Zembiec’s battalion operations officer described him as someone who “goes out every day and creates menacing dilemmas for the enemy.” [Laughter]

        A newspaper profile at the time described him as a “balding, gregarious man who, in glasses, looks like a high school science teacher.” [Laughter]

        After returning from Iraq, Doug was promoted and given a desk job at the Pentagon. He chafed at the assignment, volunteered to deploy again, and was sent back to Iraq earlier this year. This time, he would not return – to his country or to his wife Pamela and his one-year old daughter.

        In May, the Lion of Fallujah was laid to rest at Arlington and memorialized at his alma mater in Annapolis. The crowd of more than 1,000 included many enlisted Marines from his beloved Echo Company. An officer there told a reporter: “your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to go to your funeral.”

        Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec. For you, and for me, they are not names on a press release, or numbers updated on a web page. They are our country’s sons and daughters. They are in a tradition of service that includes you and your forebears going back to the earliest days of the republic.

        God bless you, the Marine Corps, the men and women of our armed forces, and the country we have all sworn to defend.

        Thank you. [Applause]