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Swearing-In Ceremony

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, The Pentagon, Friday, July 22, 2011

I want to first begin by thanking the President for placing his trust and confidence in me.  I am truly humbled by the responsibility and the opportunity that has been given to me at this great moment in time, to head this great Department, and to take on the mission of protecting America and our interests around the world.

Mr. Vice President, thank you for your kind words and thank you for your friendship, and thank you for administering the oath of office.  We go back a long way through a number of challenges, dealing with all kinds of issues that both of us have had to work on, and we’ve developed a close relationship in that time.  And I’m glad I’ve been able to give you a small break from budget negotiations.  I’m sure you want to get the hell out of there – for just a few moments, to be able to break away.  And I also want to thank you for your efforts.  You’re doing a great job and I know how challenging it is, but I really appreciate the great efforts that you’re making. 

It is something we all know that Joe’s heritage is Irish and mine is Italian.  And our parents, as young people growing up in these families, always taught us to speak plainly, and directly.  And sometimes that’s gotten us into trouble.  As a result, there was some talk here of trying to put a seven second delay on the microphones for the ceremony.  But I can’t imagine why the hell that would be necessary.   

I’d like to express my deep gratitude to the members of Congress that are here with us today – many of them dear old friends, from my days on the Hill.  And I truly appreciate the fair and prompt hearing I received in the Senate and I deeply appreciate the strong vote of confidence.  As a creature of the Hill, I pledge to all of you, to all of you, that I will continue to work closely with members of both of those great chambers on the Hill, and that I will continue to work with both political parties.  I can’t do this job without you.  It’s that simple.  I really believe that Congress has to be a full partner in the Department’s mission of protecting America, and that we must be stronger in confronting those challenges, and the only way we can be stronger is if we work together.  And so I appreciate your oversight, I appreciate your guidance, and in particular I appreciate your partnership.

Much of the civilian and military leadership of the Department is gathered here as well.  Chairman Mullen, Mike Mullen, who has become a dear friend, I thank you for your leadership and I thank you for your continuing guidance as I take on this challenge.  And I also want to express my deepest thanks to the outstanding service chiefs and service secretaries, for their guidance, for their counsel, and for their support.  And in particular I appreciate their insights into the needs of our men and women who serve out there on the front lines – their needs, and the needs of their families.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank my family.  My family has been tolerant beyond all measure during 40 years of public service.  And above all I want to thank Sylvia, who is here today.  My three sons, my six grandchildren, have been a great source of pride for Sylvia and I, and I am so grateful for their continuing love and continuing support. 

That’s the story of my family – and the story of my family tells you a lot about what America means to me, and to all of us.  As you know my parents were immigrants from Italy, and they believed deeply in the American promise.  They brought to this country a willingness to work hard because they knew that if they could make use of the great opportunities here, they could give their children a better life.  And that is the American dream.  It’s what they wanted for their two sons, it’s what we want for our three sons, and hopefully it’s what our three sons want for their children, and for their children.

When I was growing up, my parents always made clear how important it was to give something back to this country, because of the opportunity that they received.  And it was their inspiration, plus the time I spent in the military service, two years, plus the words of a young president who said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.  That’s what brought me to public service.  And for me, it meant in many ways fulfilling what my parents were about, and what all of you are about.  Making sure that our children have a better life.  That’s the principle, the fundamental principle that activates everything that this department is all about.  It’s what our men and women in uniform are committed to.  And they're willing to put their lives on the line to try to make sure we have a secure and better life.  Our children – we work every day to try to ensure that our fellow citizens – future citizens and generations of Americans – are able to enjoy that better life.  I believe there is no better guarantor of our security and ultimately our freedom, than the strength of America’s armed forces and the dedication and skill of those who serve this country in uniform.

This is a time of historic challenge, for this department, and for our country.  And change will only accelerate the challenges we face.  This auditorium that we’re in stands only a few hundred yards from where terrorists attacked the Pentagon on 9/11, that day when the nation suddenly understood that we had to confront a new and uncertain period of conflict.  Unlike the Cold War, we now face a multitude of security challenges – dangers that are spread across the globe. 

These threats are daunting, to be sure.  But these past few years have also shown the world that America, with our strong intelligence and military capabilities, is up to the challenge:  we will not back down when our homeland is threatened; we will do whatever it takes to defend this country.  And no one attacks America and gets away with it.

We have been relentless in the efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s extremist affiliates, and ultimately that effort culminated in the operation to get bin Laden.  I believe that we are within reach of achieving the strategic defeat of al Qaeda.  But to do so, we have to continue to put pressure on them wherever they are.  And if we do, and if we continue that commitment, then ultimately we will succeed. 

We remain at war – we are a nation at war today, but there is also hope there as well, that ultimately we can achieve that degree of stability that will ensure that these countries where we’re fighting will never become safe havens for terrorists, will never become safe havens for al Qaeda and their militants, will never become safe havens from which they can launch attacks on our homeland.  In Afghanistan, American and international forces have dealt the Taliban insurgency a serious blow, and it has put us on a track where we can make that important transition, and give responsibility of government and securing their country to the Afghans themselves.

And thanks to the heroic sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, I believe we are headed in the right direction, and that we will be able to achieve the goal we seek, but we must remain committed to that effort.  

Iraq has emerged from decades of dictatorship and turmoil, but again thanks to the heavy sacrifices of the U.S. military, our coalition forces, and the Iraqi people themselves, that country now that has the opportunity to become a stable democracy in a very unstable region of the world.  But again, it demands that we stay committed in order for that to happen.

Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. faces, as I said, a multitude of other strategic and institutional challenges.  We must reset a stressed force.  We must prepare for emerging threats – cyber attackers, nuclear proliferation, rising powers – that will demand that we work toward greater transparency and better diplomacy.  And we must do all we can so that we recognize that in this effort we do not have a blank check from the American people, that we will face the fiscal challenges that confront us, but we will do it in a way that maintains the strength of our country.

Based on my long experience in government and working with budgets, I really believe that we do not have to make a choice between fiscal discipline and national security.  By setting priorities based on sound strategy, based on good policy, we can focus on a strong and innovative defense policy that confronts the future and deals with the threats that we will face in the future, and that focuses those resources that we need at those threats of today and tomorrow.  We must continue to be accountable to the American people, for what we spend, where we spend it, and what the results are.  But I am confident, from the years that I have spent working on budgets and confronting the issues that are part of having to deal with budgets, that we can do this in a way that will strengthen us for the future, that will make us more effective, more efficient, and that will not break faith with the men and women who serve this country.

And that brings me to my last point, and in many ways my most important responsibility as Secretary of Defense, which is to protect those who are protecting America.  In my three weeks as Secretary of Defense, I’ve had to sign deployment orders, but I’ve also had to write condolence letters, which is one of the toughest tasks that a Secretary has to confront.  I’ve traveled to the war zones and I’ve met with service members on the front lines.  I look into their eyes and what I’m looking into is the heart and soul of this country – soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines willing to put their lives on the line to defend their country.  I am truly awed by the dedication of that young generation that is willing to do that.

And like my good friend and predecessor Bob Gates, I will be a tireless advocate for them and their families.  I will never forget the consequences of my decisions – the strain, the sacrifice, and sometimes the heartbreak involved in sending those men and women into harm’s way.  We must respect the dignity of every person who is willing to put their life on the line for America.  Every day they are making extraordinary sacrifices for all of us, and so are their families back home.  We owe it to them to make sure that they have what they need to accomplish their mission and to also support their families back home.

Mr. Vice President, my dear friends, and my colleagues, I am again deeply thankful for the opportunity that I have been given to do my part to protect this country I love, and this country that provides the men and women who serve it in battle, but most of all, I will tell you that I will always be committed to protecting that dream that my parents were about when they came to this country – which is to ensure that all of our children have that better life.  

Thank you for your support. May God bless the men and women who are out there serving us, but most importantly may God bless the United States of America.

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