Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta's Remarks at a Portrait-Unveiling Ceremony for Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
(MODERATOR): Good morning, and welcome to the portrait unveiling ceremony in honor of Robert M. Gates, the 22nd Secretary of Defense.
Will you stand for the arrival of the official party? (Applause.)
Will you be seated?
Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary of Defense, Leon E. Panetta.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE E. LEON PANETTA: Well, ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by extending a very warm welcome to all of the distinguished guests and former leaders of the department who join us this morning.
And most of all, the members of the Gates family and Secretary Gates.
It's not every day you have to brave a hurricane in order to come to a portrait unveiling (Laughter.)
But then again, for those of us who've been in this job, it's like dealing with a hurricane every day, so we're used to it.
Bob, Becky, Eleanor, I'm truly honored to be able to preside at this ceremony today. This is a special moment for me and for the department. It gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to really one of the great leaders of our country, a man who I believe will be remembered as one of America's most dedicated and most effective public servants.
He's someone who made history by answering the call to serve. And as he once put it, by agreeing to stay on and on and on in the administration of President Obama. (Laughter.)
But today, it isn't all about Bob. We also honor those who made his success possible. Above -- above all, his wife Becky, who has the gratitude of the entire department, and indeed the nation, for the love and support that she offered and continues to offer Bob throughout his career.
We also have a number of Bob's key staff here, those who have left government and are looking well rested, and I might add, well paid (Laughter.) And I also have the opportunity to be here to work with many who have stayed on and I thank all the staff both past and present for the great work that they -- they have done for the nation.
It's an honor for me to pay tribute to Bob because especially in recent years, I have followed his career and jobs in Washington very closely, and I mean that literally. I've -- I've known Bob for a long time. Bob -- Bob and I, as I've mentioned before, worked together on the Iraq study group. This was back in 2006. And at the time, Bob was president of Texas A&M and I was at the Panetta Institute.
And I -- I remember that opportunity because all of the members of the Iraq study group having the opportunity to work together and to really look at the issues involved with Iraq was a great experience for me. And I think -- I think it was an effort that was well worth the work of everyone who tried to in some way direct that -- help direct that policy for the future.
I'll never forget -- I've mentioned this before -- going into Baghdad in 2006. It's not a -- not a pleasant experience. You had to do a kind of corkscrew landing going into Baghdad in order to avoid fire. And then we shot off with armed helicopters to our location. And then as you all know, every meeting we held, we drank tea after tea after tea after tea, and finally Bob and I looked at each other, and he hustled me off to the CIA headquarters and bar. And we finally had a decent drink. (Laughter.)
That's when I knew that Bob was really my kind of guy. (Laughter.)
And that visit to Iraq made clear -- I mean, for all of us -- the challenges faced by our troops on the ground there.
Within weeks that -- that trip to Baghdad, few of us expected that President Bush would then turn to Bob Gates to be secretary of defense, to help put that war on the right path.
He loved his job as president of Texas A&M, but he loved his country more. And that profound sense of duty, and strength of character were on display from the moment that Bob took on this responsibility.
From the beginning, his calm demeanor, his no-nonsense straight talk delivered in that Kansas twang, helped reassure a country -- reassure a country that was badly shaken by the growing toll of the Iraq war.
Over time, his steady and effective leadership helped change the direction of that conflict, and I believe the course of history.
Bob has said, that he had three priorities when he came into the job as secretary: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. And he came into this building on a war footing, determined to provide the commanders on the ground and their troops everything they needed in order to succeed.
But, he soon encountered the massive and sometimes entrenched bureaucracy at the Pentagon. It was not responding as quickly as it should have to the needs of the troops.
When it came to his attention that acquiring more heavily armed MRAPS could help protect troops from the threat of lethal IEDs, he refused to accept any excuses from a defense establishment that had ignored pleas upon pleas from the battlefield.
He was told that they couldn't be produced fast enough. He told them that wasn't good enough. And the MRAPS needed to be delivered, and needed to be delivered as quickly as possible. And they were. And they were.
Hearing from our troops how much they valued that protection is, I think, a lasting legacy of Bob. He helped save lives.
When he heard from the troops how much they valued surveillance provided by unmanned aerial vehicles, he pushed to get more of these assets into the theater on a quicker pace.
And another Gates legacy, one that perhaps is not as well known was his insistence on speeding medevac, to theater to respond quickly in Afghanistan. Even though some claim that at the time it wasn't possible because of the extremes of distance and terrain.
But he pushed hard to ensure that the same golden hour standard that existed in Iraq, a standard that improved survival and chances of recovery for the injured, he made sure that they met that same standard when it came to our troops fighting in Afghanistan.
And thanks to his efforts, evacuation times for our wounded in Afghanistan were more than cut in half, one hour 40 minutes, to 41 minutes. Again, saving lives.
Bob's determination to get these capabilities to the battlefield has saved, as I said, untold life and limbs; and they continue to make a difference today. There can be no greater legacy then saving lives.
His overriding priority was to get our young men and women in the field the equipment they needed to succeed and to come home safely.
When our medical institutions failed to deliver he put the right place -- the right people in place in order to get the job done.
When serious appeared with our nuclear enterprise, Bob demanded that those responsible be held accountable and helped restore America's confidence in that key part of our nation's security.
A lot of what Bob did, I am grateful for because it really helped lay the groundwork for what we were able to do in putting our defense -- our new defense strategy in place.
He -- he worked to have more energy and resources put together on preparing for the kind of irregular conflict that we were most likely to face in the 21st century, knowing full well that was the kind of force we would need for the future.
He had the opportunity to reshape the department to do that, to become more efficient and more agile, which is important -- an important framework for our entire strategy.
He worked hard to eliminate more than $300 billion in costly and poorly performing programs, as well as those poorly suited to the 21st century battlefield. He relentlessly pressed the department to look for more efficient ways to do business and to use that money to invest in high-priority warfighting capabilities needed for the future.
The significant progress that we have achieved over the last few years against the insurgency in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region and beyond would not have been possible without his determination to put more resources and attention to that fight. Indeed the impressive fusion that we see today between our intelligence community and the military owes much to his initiative.
Significant challenges still lie ahead for this effort, but thanks to Bob Gates leadership, and to the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend us, we are on a much better path today.
Which brings me to Bob's most important priority. Like few others, Bob truly felt the heavy burden that settles upon those who have to sign orders to send America's youth into harm's way.
As tough as he was when it came to not only the bureaucracy, he always had a soft spot in his heart for the young men and women serving on our frontlines.
He traveled to the frontlines of our country's wars as others -- as often as he could to spend time with our young troops, to personally express his care, his concern, his love, his support for America's fighting men and women.
He was a tireless advocate for them, and like them, reflected the very best qualities that the American people expect in a public servant -- integrity, sense of duty and a sense of hope for the future. But that future will be more secure and the American people will be safer because of the leadership of Bob Gates.
I know that we're all here to unveil a portrait, but in reality a portrait is made up of oil and canvas and fades with time. I think the most important portrait of a person is the memory that we hold that person in our hearts and the respect and honor that we have for that individual. That portrait, that portrait in all of our hearts for Bob Gates will last forever.
Bob and Becky, you have earned the enduring gratitude of this department, and the entire nation.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT M. GATES: Thank you, Leon.
Thanks a lot.
(MODERATOR): Ladies and gentlemen, the portrait of Robert M. Gates.
FORMER SEC. GATES: Well first of all, thank you very much, Leon, for those kind comments.
And thank all of you for braving the hurricane to get here for this -- for this event.
So I have a debt of gratitude to a lot of people in this room, and a lot of others besides, for your help when I was secretary. So in order to -- in -- in trying to keep these remarks relatively brief that prevents me from naming everybody that -- that I owe a debt of thanks to, and I hope you'll know that your names are in my heart and in my thoughts.
There are some that I have to single out to -- as you might expect. First, obviously, I have to thank Becky. Without her support all along the way, I obviously couldn't have done this job, wouldn't have taken it in the first place. And also thanks to our son and daughter, Brad and Eleanor. And Eleanor's with us today.
I guess, I should also -- at the outset, thank the one person without whom this event would genuinely not have been possible, and that would be the artist, Ray Kinstler. And Ray e-mailed me from Connecticut a couple days ago and said that he thought he would probably stay put rather than try and battle the elements to be here.
But some of you may know Ray as the de facto portraitist of official Washington, having painted seven presidents, more than 60 cabinet officers, and countless celebrities and celebrity government officials, including a certain CIA director two decades ago.
Recently, I took another look at Ray's official portrait of me from 1993. It didn't seem all that different, a few pounds lighter, maybe a couple of inches taller. (Laughter.)
The hair a more useful shade of white. (Laughter.)
A sure sign you've been in Washington too long is when Ray Kinstler has more than one crack at your portrait a generation apart. (Laughter.)
Speaking of long stints in Washington, I also want to thank the man most responsible for my ability to visit here today as a former secretary of defense, and that would be Leon. (Laughter.)
Right after the 2008 election, Leon Panetta wrote an op-ed suggesting President Elect Obama retain me as secretary of defense. After a couple of more failed attempts to retire, more likely flee from Washington, I knew the only way I could leave this post in good conscience, especially in a time of war, was to make sure an experienced and able successor would take over.
So, when President Obama asked who might succeed me, I returned the favor to Leon. (Laughter.)
An act of selfless generosity on my part, for which I'm sure he thanks me every single day. (Laughter.)
And I especially appreciate Leon's kind words, because this is the second time in less than 48 hours he made a speech on my behalf, the last being a gracious and eloquent video tribute on Saturday night at the OSS Society dinner.
Where, I might just add, that it goes on a while and I got up to speak at a quarter of midnight (Laughter.) And led off by saying that I had a firm principle that every event should end on the same day it started. (Laughter.)
I understand Leon has yet another speech tonight, this time at the Center for a New American Security. I always figured that at least during the Obama administration, my CNAS outreach was pretty well covered by the morning staff meeting. (Laughter.)
I've heard there have been a number of changes around here since the Panetta regime took over. I've heard the E-4B has a new nickname. It's no longer the "Big Brisket," but "Airborne Cannoli." (Laughter.)
But seriously, this department and this country is fortunate that a statesman of Leon's caliber and experience agreed to serve once again at such an important time. And I will say immodestly that I think a left a great legacy for Leon, both in the senior military officials that he has with his team and also the senior civilian team that he has.
Between writing my book and preparing for this event, I've been reflecting on some of the things and people that I miss from being secretary of defense and, frankly, many more that I don't. In the latter category, there are meetings, conferences, hearings of various kinds.
I confess that back at CIA, I might have been less motivated to win the Cold War if I had known that the result would be NATO conferences in which 28 defense ministers would be present, all entitled to speak (Laughter.) And all of them take advantage of that opportunity, with the sole and noble exception of the defense minister of Iceland.
Then there's the alphabet soup of regional security conferences, the frequency, the distance and jet lag all multiplied in recent years by the pivot to Asia, like the five obligatory trips to Singapore for the Shangri-La conference. And of course, there were the bilateral sessions with my counterparts ranging from my required bimonthly meeting with Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to the less edifying experience of being shaken down by the defense minister of Kyrghyzstan for rent at Manas airbase. (Laughter.)
And finally, the trips across the Potomac to see Tom, or in some cases flights across the continent to get to last-minute NSC meetings or committee hearings on the Hill -- and the less said about the latter, the better.
Yet for all my grousing about the foibles of Washington and the sometimes aggravating aspects of this job and this building, serving as America's secretary of defense during two wars was the singular honor and highest calling of my professional life.
It all began almost exactly six years ago -- six years ago last week, with a message from my secretary at Texas A&M that Steve Hadley in the White House wanted to speak to me. I'd already turned down one job in the Bush administration, to be DNI, and figured it was persona non grata at that point. In fact, I told Becky after I turned that down that we were now safe; that I'd never be asked by the Bush administration to do anything again.
I guess we can list that as another triumph of my CIA and political training. (Laughter.)
And when I took this post the first and best decision I made was to retain every single senior official I inherited from Secretary Rumsfeld, including his personal front office staff whose loyalty and friendship I cherished, and whose company I truly miss.
I suspect that when Delonnie Henry left NDU to become Secretary Rumsfeld's confidential assistant in 2002, she would never have dreamed that 10 years, thousands of snowflakes and countless late read-aheads later, she'd still be at the Pentagon making the trains run on time with consummate grace and steel for her third defense secretary.
One of the other decisions I made early on was to surround myself with military assistants, junior and senior, who had been in the fight or commanded those who were. These warriors made sure the needs and perspective of those serving down-range was kept front and center even in the plush environments of the E-ring and my office.
I'm particularly grateful for my senior military assistants Pete Chiarelli, Rod Rodriguez, Joe Kernan, and John Kelly, for diverting themselves from high command to be at my side. I greatly value their passion for the troops, their military expertise and their judgment in all things.
So, Chiarelli’s decision to order fish in a world famous barbecue joint remains a head scratcher. (Laughter.)
I also miss Robert Rangel's raised eyebrow, usually in response to some half-baked idea or poorly thought out proposal, in too many cases my own. I can say with confidence that Robert got more done with fewer words and less bombast than anyone in the history of this building.
And Robert, whatever they're paying you now, it isn't enough. And that's saying something. (Laughter.)
Other curiosities -- other curiosities that linger, include Geoff Morell's sense of fashion, which I've never seen before or since. (Laughter.)
Best described as Tommy Hilfiger meets Thurston Howell. (Laughter.)
However he looked doing it, Geoff's work with the press was invaluable to what we accomplished here, and in many cases, acting the bad guy so I didn't have to.
In both administrations I was ably supported by a superb team of senior civil civilians officials. Today I feel compelled to call out the two Mikes: Mike Vickers and Mike Donley, the only remaining senior holdovers from the Bush administration. It says something about their abilities, devotion to country, and not to mention their gluttony for punishment that they're still with their posts.
I also need to thank my two undersecretaries for policy, Eric Adelman, and Michelle Flournoy, both of whom earned endowed chairs in the situation room. And I want to thank John Young and Ash Carter who were extraordinary in many ways, but especially in making my desire to help the troop round range -- down range become real.
Anything of consequence achieved in this department requires collaboration between the civilian and the military leadership. General Pete Pace was chairman of the joint chiefs when I arrived, and his counsel got me off to a strong start.
And then, of course, there was my Foggy Bottom neighbor for four years, Mike Mullen. On weekends, Mike and I would sometimes hang out chatting on our front porches, dressed down for the weekend, cigar in my hand, security details lurking nearby.
Without Mike's sound advice, his effective stewardship of the joint chiefs, and our close partnership, the record of the last several years I think would have been different. Mike was never shy about disagreeing with me, but unfailingly steadfast and loyal, to me and the presidents he served once a decision was made.
Back in 2005, when I was first approached about the DNI job, I told Becky she can make it a lot easier if she just said she didn't want to go back to Washington. She thought for a moment, and replied, "We have to do what you have to do." And that's something military spouses have said, in one form or another, a million times since 9/11 upon learning their loved one receives a deployment notice or is considering another tour of service.
The difference being, of course, that those troops while volunteers for military service have little say about when and where they were sent. And for how long. Those decisions were made by others. Their deployment orders signed by me.
That was responsibility that has weighed on me every day I was secretary. So much so, that towards the end of my time in office, I could barely speak to the troops or about them without becoming over -- without being overcome with emotion.
So much so, that frankly, I began to worry that my devotion to protecting them was beginning to cloud my judgment and diminish my usefulness to the president. And it does play a part in my decision to retire.
The many trips to the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere military posts, hospitals and more, it blurred into one another over time, that the faces, stories, questions, and requests remain clear. A mom pleading with me in a hotel restaurant, even before I was confirmed, to make sure her two sons came home safely from Iraq.
Midnight visits to Dover to receive home four flag-draped coffins. Talking with troops battered, but still very much alive after their MRAP was struck by an IED -- a moment's reflection at a battalion's memorial in Helmand.
Historians and scholars will debate the decisions made, and events that took place on my long watch on such a choice as -- or strategy, personnel hired and fired, if they come away with nothing else from my tenure as secretary, I hope it is recognition that I came to work every day with the simple question: Are we doing everything we can to get the troops everything they need to succeed in their mission, to come home safely, and if wounded, to get the best possible care when they come home?
In some instances, the answer was satisfactory; in others, less so.
Whoever is privileged to hold this high position, indeed, anyone elevated to high civilian or military rank, must never forget what one of my heroes, General George Marshall, once said about the obligations that come with committing our military to war. He said we must do everything we could to convince the soldier that we were all solicitude for his well being. You couldn't be severe in your demands unless he was convinced you were doing everything you could to make matters well for him.
That's what I hope people will remember when they walk down the E-ring corridor and see my portrait; that our comfort and safety are borne on the brave and broad shoulders of those young men and women in uniform, and it is our duty -- our sacred obligation, in Marshall's words -- to make things well for them.
Thank you very much, and thank you Leon. (Applause)