I've just returned from my second international TDY as Secretary of Defense - a whirlwind five day trip that took me to Israel, Egypt, Belgium and Italy. Over the course of the week, I had the opportunity to consult with key partners in a vital and fast-changing region of the world, reaffirm the commitment of the United States to a strong and vital NATO alliance, and visit with troops in Italy who have helped support the successful operations in Libya.
It was an extraordinary few days that reinforced the importance of our alliances and partnerships, and the need for continued American leadership in the world. With this trip message, I wanted to share some of my experiences with you, the men and women of the Department of Defense, because it is your efforts that make it possible for us to build these alliances and maintain America's global leadership.
The first stop on this trip was Israel, a key security partner in a very volatile and important region of the world. I've traveled to Israel many times before, including as Director of CIA and as a member of Congress. Each time I visit, I'm deeply moved by the history and religious significance of the surroundings. With only one day in the country and a packed agenda full of meetings in three different cities, however, I had little time to soak in the sights.
It was very important for me to be able to go to Israel to reaffirm the unshakeable commitment of the United States to the security of the Israeli people, especially at a time of rapid change in the region. Of course, Israel's long-term security would be greatly enhanced by a sustainable comprehensive Middle East peace - and that was a focus of my discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah. In my conversations with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, I urged both sides to return to negotiations and told them that the United States was prepared to do whatever we can to support them in this effort. Although there remains a lot of work to be done to bring both sides together, I'm hopeful that there is shared recognition that there is no alternative to negotiations.
After completing my last meeting in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, Israeli's memorial to the six million victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem stands as a monument to the extraordinary strength of the Jewish people in overcoming tragedy to establish the State of Israel, and it was an honor to be able to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony there with the American ambassador, Dan Shapiro, and museum officials. After taking part in that solemn observance, I wrote this note in the official guest book: "This has been a very moving experience for me personally. What we learn here commits all good people to work together to ensure it never happens again. May God bless those who gave their lives so we could live."
After resting for the night in Tel Aviv, we left early the next morning and took a 45 minute flight to Cairo, Egypt to visit another key security partner in the region - a country that has been at the leading edge of the democratic changes sweeping the Middle East. Cairo is an incredible city, brimming with excitement - and lots and lots of traffic.
Given the extraordinary political transformation Egypt has undergone this year, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to have my first meeting with my counterpart, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is now overseeing the country's political transition.
In my conversations with Field Marshal Tantawi, I expressed my desire to see an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government. We also discussed our shared desire to maintain a strong defense relationship, which is important for our ability to confront common threats and ensure regional stability.
After my first meeting, I had the opportunity to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb of Anwar Sadat in central Cairo. It was a privilege to be able to lay a wreath in honor of these two lives that were given to the cause of peace, especially knowing that the people of Egypt are in the midst of their own peaceful transition to a new and more hopeful future.
Following the ceremony, the Field Marshal graciously hosted me for lunch, along with Prime Minister Sharaf and the American Ambassador, Anne Patterson. Our hosts truly went out of the way to make me feel comfortable - they served American cheesecake for dessert. After lunch, the Field Marshal took me on a tour of the building where the banquet was held, and the two of us even got to enjoy an impromptu game of bowling.
We couldn't play for very long, however, because I was already late to meet with Major General Murad Muwafi, the Director of the Egyptian Intelligence Directorate. In my last meeting of the day, I had a very good conversation with Director Muwafi about how we could further cooperation against threats to regional security.
All of my conversations left me very hopeful that, despite the violence of the last few days, Egypt is trying to stay on the right path forward. I believe Egypt's continuing effort to transition to democracy will send a very strong, positive signal to the rest of the region about the possibilities for peaceful, democratic change.
After wrapping up the day in Cairo, I flew to Brussels, Belgium to participate in my first NATO meeting of Ministers of Defense. Even though I had left the Middle East, the dynamic events in the region were not far from my mind, as the NATO operation in Libya figured prominently in discussions over the course of two days of meetings. Other important topics included our shared effort in Afghanistan and our common challenge of building 21st century military capabilities while facing growing budget constraints.
As a former member of Congress whose roots are in the legislative process, I deeply appreciate forums where everyone can express their views and ultimately try to find consensus, so I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to participate in my first ministerial, and also to engage with a number of my counterparts in bilateral sessions.
I began my visit in Brussels by delivering a speech to an audience at Carnegie Europe, where I underscored the importance of the NATO alliance but also pushed our European allies to shoulder more of the burden for common defense. I also urged our allies to better coordinate defense spending within the alliance, arguing that security in the 21st century will not be achieved by each nation marching to its own drummer. I really believe that the fiscal austerity our nations are facing and the pressure that these budget constraints are putting on defense spending will make it all the more essential that we have alliances like NATO.
Later that day, I had the opportunity to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to the Alliance by joining Spanish President Jose Zapatero and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in announcing a decision to base four Aegis ships at Rota Naval Base in Spain. These ships will further bolster European missile defense capabilities against threats from Iran, and represent a critical step in implementing NATO missile defense, as our leaders agreed to do last year in Lisbon.
During my second day in Brussels, I participated in a meeting of ISAF troop contributing nations to discuss the war in Afghanistan and review the significant progress that we've made in NATO's largest effort. General John Allen, Commander ISAF, presented a briefing of the situation, and it was amazing to look around that room and see all the nations that have contributed to this effort. In listening to my fellow ministers I was really struck by their shared commitment to carry forward this mission and to build on the significant progress that we've made. It was clear that no one is rushing to the exits. To the contrary, there was a real commitment by all to a long-term enduring relationship with Afghanistan.
Another session focused on the effort in Libya, which is nearing its conclusion with the fall of the Qadhafi regime. This was a remarkable achievement and there is no doubt that this alliance has emerged stronger as a result of this effort.
I was very eager to thank those involved in the Libya effort and hear directly from them about their experiences, so at the end of the Brussels ministerial I flew to Naples, Italy - the headquarters of Allied Joint Forces Command. There was also a secondary but important goal to this mission - reaffirming my heritage as the proud son of Italian immigrants and getting more great food and wine.
Luckily, we arrived in Naples just in time to have dinner with Admiral Jim Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Sam Locklear, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and Vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe, the Commander of the 6th Fleet. After braving traffic conditions reminiscent of Cairo, we set out almost immediately from our hotel to a restaurant in the shadow of the famed Castel dell'Ovo - a stunning medieval waterfront fortress. It was a special opportunity for me to be able to share my native cuisine with these fine military officers. Following my advice, we ordered everything on the menu and enjoyed a family-style meal the proper Italian way.
The next morning, we headed over to Allied Joint Forces Command (also the 6th Fleet headquarters) to receive briefings on Operation Unified Protector with top commanders from a number of countries that participated in the effort. This was an opportunity for them to talk about what worked, what areas needed improvement, and what lessons were learned. I thought the sessions were extremely productive, and the consensus I came away with was that NATO really proved itself in this mission. We were able to effectively and quickly put together a complicated operation, and share the burden across the alliance. And as a result of these efforts, the Libyan people are free from a brutal dictator.
As the perfect capstone to the week-long trip, before leaving Italy I had the opportunity to conduct two troop visits - the first in Naples with U.S. personnel, and the second at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, with coalition personnel who were flying missions over Libya. In both visits, I expressed my strong support for the Libya mission and my deepest thanks for the service of all who had gathered. In Sigonella, where around 4,000 sorties have been flown in the Libya mission, my visit on the flight line was punctuated by fighter jets and Predator UAVs taking off - testament to the power of our military alliances and the unceasing work of our military across the world.
From NAS Sigonella, I boarded the "Doomsday plane" for the 11 hour flight back to Washington. I came away from the week truly struck by the power of our defense relationships, and by the desire of countries across the Middle East and Europe to deepen their bonds of partnership with our military. That desire is testament to the strength of the American military, and to the outstanding quality of our all-volunteer force. I wish that all of you, the men and women of the Department of Defense, could join me on these TDYs to see the respect and admiration the world has for the American military.
Your tireless efforts make clear that the United States will do everything possible to help people secure the rights, freedoms, and opportunities that are inherent for all people to achieve. We did this after World War II in Europe, and we are working to help the people of the Middle East achieve these aspirations today. And because of these efforts, we will help achieve the goal of a safer and more secure world for our children.