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U.S. Central Command Change of Command Ceremony

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Tampa, Florida, Friday, March 16, 2007

Good morning.  I am pleased to be here.

Welcome to our many friends and allies who have joined us today:

  • Congressman Young, thank you for coming, and for your continued support of the men and women in uniform.
  • General Pace, General Casey, it’s good to see you.
  • Three combatant commanders are here with us.  Admiral Keating and General Smith.  I see General Brown made it in all the way from down the street.
  • Welcome to General Conway and Admiral Allen.  It says a lot about today’s environment of joint operations that the Coast Guard is well represented here.

I understand there are 26 liaison officers from partner nations here at Central Command.  Your presence pays tribute to the strong bonds many countries have formed in this campaign against violent jihadists – and to the soldier, scholar, and patriot we are honoring today.

Kathy Abizaid, it has been good seeing you this morning.  John would be the first to say that you are the real reason for his many successes over the years.  I hear that you and John are retiring to a region of Nevada he calls the “Waziristan of the United States” – a place where folks don’t like the federal government and drive around in pickup trucks.  Reminds me of my permanent home in the Pacific Northwest.  I wish you all the best.

Saying farewell to General Abizaid provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the more storied military careers of recent memory.

His assignments ranged from transforming how young officers are trained at West Point to commanding the First Infantry Division – the legendary Big Red One.

Then there was the Grenada operation in 1983, when then-Captain Abizaid led a company of Rangers against a Cuban position using a bulldozer – an episode that Clint Eastwood used as the basis for a scene in the movie, “Heartbreak Ridge.”  No one ever based a movie on my work at CIA.  I always thought my covert operations skills were closer to Austin Powers than 007.  CIA agreed.

When looking at the general’s career, a consistent theme runs throughout:  his efforts to bridge the gap between the American military and people of the Middle East.

John studied at the University of Jordan where he made it a point to get out to tribal areas and meet with sheikhs to learn from their perspectives.

He later served with a United Nations observer group in Lebanon.  As a battalion commander, he was responsible for ensuring thousands of Kurdish refugees received food, shelter, and protection from Saddam Hussein immediately after Operation Desert Storm.

He proved to be a person who cared deeply about the Arab people, and became an expert in their culture and history.  This made him an obvious choice to lead CENTCOM nearly four years ago.  In assuming command of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, he accepted an enormous responsibility at a crucial time in history.

General Abizaid took over just two months after Coalition forces had removed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he faced the daunting and uncertain task of overseeing Iraq’s path to sovereignty, representative government, and economic recovery.

But John set out to create relationships with many groups across the region – most importantly with the Iraqi people.  Since then:

  • Iraqhas held three successful nationwide elections;
  • Iraqi Security Forces have seen their numbers go from essentially zero to over 320,000 trained and equipped today; and
  • Iraq’s gross domestic product has grown and this year is projected to be three times what it was under the Baathist regime.

In Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, they are doing something that has never been done in the whole, long history of both countries: creating a government that actually serves the people.  That is obviously a tall order.  When it comes to Afghanistan, I was asked recently if I considered our involvement there to be a “foreign policy success.”

Well, I think the Afghan people would certainly say it has been a success.  They continue to face challenges, but they are determined to make progress against a merciless enemy.  And thanks in large part to General Abizaid’s efforts, NATO and other partners have stepped up to help Afghanistan succeed.

In the Horn of Africa, coalition countries are doing pioneering and innovative work to build the capacity of local forces, and cement partnerships that will halt the spread of extremism in a strategically important area.  The efforts that General Abizaid began there even impressed a New York Times columnist – who after visiting Djibouti wrote that “the most useful ‘aid workers’ are the ones in camouflage carrying guns.”

In all of these efforts, I am sure that General Abizaid would agree that not everything has gone as planned, as expected, or as hoped.  This is the nature of war.

John realized early on that this fight against jihadist extremism would be a long and difficult endeavor.  In fact, he popularized the phrase “the long war” commonly used today.  Throughout his tour, he adjusted tactics to meet different threats and new realities.  And he helped build a strong alliance willing to see this fight through to its end.  John and Kathy Abizaid, thank you both for all that you have done for our nation.

I am confident that your successor will build on your good work.  Admiral William “Fox” Fallon combines fresh insight into the challenges America faces in the Middle East with decades of military experience and a proven record of success.  He was highly effective at building relationships among the countries across Pacific Command.  And his reputation for innovation is without peer.

Admiral Fallon will be responsible for strengthening and building on many relationships while simultaneously overseeing two wars, the continued advancement of peoples across the region, and the continued security of our nation and its allies.

These will be difficult tasks.  Fox, after four decades in uniform, and after three prestigious four-star assignments, no one would begrudge you a well-deserved rest – except me.  We need you again.  You are one of the best strategic thinkers in uniform today.  You are exactly the right person for this post.  Thank you for taking on this most challenging assignment at such a crucial time in our nation’s history.

I’d also like to thank your wife for her kindness to the men and women of Pacific Command, since I will miss having the opportunity to see you both in Hawaii later this month.  I know that the citizens of Hawaii truly embraced you, Mary, and appreciated all that you did there.

I am sure that the good folks of Tampa will take you into their hearts as well.  Good luck to you and Fox.

Before closing, I would like to say a few words about the work of this command, and its vital importance to our nation.  In Washington, there is no escaping the debate over the U.S. commitment in Iraq and elsewhere. 

But one thing should be clear to our allies, to the young men and women in uniform giving everything of themselves in this fight, and to our adversaries looking for weakness in our resolve:  The United States will continue to stand by our allies in the Middle East and Central Asia.  We will fulfill our strategic commitments made by administrations of both parties stretching back over many decades.  We are dedicated to strengthening those commitments and defending our interests for the decades to come.  And we will do all in our power to protect and defend our homeland.

It is an awesome responsibility – and one that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have stepped forward to meet.  I know that John Abizaid and Fox Fallon would agree with me when I say you are our heroes.  You and your families have our appreciation and thanks for everything you do to serve and defend our nation.

Thank you, and God bless you.

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