SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. I am grateful, Marty [Gross], for your generous contribution and also your very observant commentary on sequestration.
There are certain privileges to this job, and one is, I do have fairly good travel accommodations. And I'm always grateful for that.
I want to thank Rob [Satloff] and the board and each of you who are – and have been – part of this institution, which I am very familiar with, have been over many years during my days in the Senate. I often would ask for advice from many of you who are here tonight and always valued that advice in every way.
I want to also acknowledge those here tonight who Marty noted in the audience who have served the United States government in important capacities for their service and what they continue to do. Thank you. Also, the ambassadors here tonight, those individuals representing their countries and those individuals who continue to make contributions to helping make a better world, which, after all, is really the assignment and the objective for all of us. And it is the objective for every institution that cares about man.
And for all that, I am particularly grateful that you would have a currently employed secretary of defense. I shall pass on your regards to Gates and Panetta – I think Leon is probably with the pope at this very moment, having some wine in Italy.
Fortunately, he has a good sense of humor, and maybe he won't be offended by that. I actually do talk to Leon often and Bob Gates and others who have served in this job and ask for their advice, as I do so many people who have devoted their lives over the years to our country, the security of this country.
So thank you all. And truly thank you for the privilege to share some time with you tonight.
For nearly 30 years, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has helped the United States government better understand and respond to big policy challenges focused in the Middle East. Ahead of my recent trip to the region, my team and I benefited greatly from the consultations with Dennis Ross and others at the institute.
And now that I have returned, as has been noted here tonight, it just seems appropriate that I take advantage of this opportunity to share some of my perspectives from that trip, in particular the astounding challenges that face U.S. strategic interests and our allies together in the Middle East.
I have been to every country in the Middle East a number of times over the years, except Iran. And like all trips and visits, you are supposed to be much enhanced and enlightened when you come back, and that is if you keep your radar turned on and your transmitter shut down low and you listen. And I did a lot of listening on this trip in particular, because it was my first trip representing the United States of America as secretary of defense.
I've long had an interest in the Middle East and its rich and complicated history, its vibrant cultures and complex politics. It came to me not through academics, travel, or National Geographic magazine, but rather through an abrupt intrusion in my life, in June 1967. You all recall what happened in June of 1957, the Six-Day War. And when that Six-Day War broke out, I was taking Army Basic Training in Fort Bliss, Texas.
This region of the world, which I knew nothing about, burst into my world in a very sudden way, in particular when our drill sergeant at Fort Bliss suggested that half of the recruits there in the barracks would be going to either Vietnam or a place called the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, or the West Bank. I didn't know much about any of those places, didn't know anything about some, but I knew they probably weren't good places to be assigned.
And the knowledge that you probably would be going to war in some far-off land, it does give "paying attention" a new meaning. I still recall Sergeant Joyce asking, "What do you like, Hagel? Do you like dry heat or hot and humid?"
Well, I got the hot and humid.
For the next few days, we followed the news closely on both radio and TV. No one knew whether this was the beginning of another world conflict. Then, suddenly, as we all recall, that war was over. But not really. But not really.
Yet even as our focus returned to Vietnam, it was clear that religious, ethnic, and geopolitical unrest in the Middle East would be a global security challenge for many years to come. That reality is inescapable today, as the region continues to undergo a period of uprising and turmoil that has uprooted an old order, and it's transformed the lives of millions of people for better and for worse.
Change has come with unprecedented speed, on a scale not witnessed in the region since the revolutions of the 1950s. It began with citizens peacefully demanding their most basic universal rights. It has been made more complex and violent by the explosive convergence of sectarian conflict, economic disparity, human rights, technology, and struggles over identity and borders.
Robert Kaplan recently wrote that the most appropriate image of the present-day Middle East is a medieval map where frontiers are not clearly, precisely defined, what he called, in his words, "a world of vague and overlapping shadows of influence."
This tumultuous landscape presents a new set of security challenges to the United States and our allies. Syria's civil war is putting its stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons at risk, and the escalation of violence threatens to spill across its borders.
Iran's support for the Assad regime and Lebanese Hezbollah, its destabilizing activities in the Persian Gulf, and its nuclear ambitions all pose a clear threat to the United States, Israel, and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the wider world.
Meanwhile, even as core al-Qaeda has been substantially weakened in recent years, affiliated new terrorist groups, like the Al-Nusra Front, are seeking new footholds in the region.
President Obama has been very clear that America's national security interests in the Middle East include the security of Israel, supporting our allies, fighting terrorism, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, pursuing Middle East peace, playing a stabilizing role with our regional partners, and working to support democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa, Egypt, and ultimately in Syria.
The Department of Defense helps protect U.S. interests through our military presence in these regions, our defense cooperation, and our work to enhance the military capabilities of our allies. Each of these aspects of our defense strategy in the Middle East was a focus of my trip to the region, which included, as has been noted, visits to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel is America's closest friend and ally in the Middle East. During a series of meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with a former Washington Institute fellow -- and you know Minister of Defense Ya'alon was a fellow at this institute, and he went into some detail telling me about that.
I met with President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And in all those meetings I spent a good amount of time with Minister Ya'alon, who I had not met before. I knew Ehud Barak well. But Minister Ya'alon and I personally clicked. I like him very much. I have high regard and value his advice and his opinions, and we have talked a number of times since, and he will be back here, I think, next month. So that relationship is one that I value and I'm much appreciative of how that first meeting came out, because personal relationships, as you all know, do matter. It doesn't change the world necessarily, but it can. But without that lubricant in human relationships, it's very difficult to ever advance common interests. You all know that.
In those meetings, I conveyed our continued commitment to enhancing defense cooperation with Israel, which I think you all know has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. One of the core principles of U.S.-Israel security cooperation is America's commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge, its capacity to defeat any threat or combination of threats from state or non-state actors.
As I emphasized during the trip, Israel is a sovereign nation. Like all sovereign nations, it has a right to defend itself. The Department of Defense works closely with the Ministry of Defense to develop and field the versatile range of advanced capabilities Israel needs to defend its people and its interests. One current example, among many, is our close cooperation on rocket and missile defense efforts, including Iron Dome, Arrow, and David's Sling.
Beyond rocket and missile defense cooperation, DOD has been working for more than a year to increase Israel's ability to confront and respond to a range of other threats. These efforts culminated in our announcement last month that the United States has agreed to release a package of advanced new capabilities, including anti-radiation missiles and more effective radars for its fleet of fighter jets, KC-135 refueling aircraft, and the V-22 Osprey. Along with Israel's status as the only Middle East nation participating in the Joint Strike Fighter program, this new capabilities package will significantly upgrade their qualitative military edge.
Israel's security is further enhanced by America's defense cooperation with our other regional partners. In my consultations with Israeli leadership, I emphasized that strong U.S. security relationships with Arab nations – including particularly Egypt and Jordan, and our partners in the Gulf – are not only in America's strategic interests, they're also in Israel's security interests.
Among the most important of these relationships is our defense partnership with Egypt. Our military-to-military relationship played an important stabilizing role during Egypt's revolution. During my visit to Cairo, I met with President Morsi and Minister of Defense Al-Sisi. There I affirmed America's continued commitment to our strategic partnership and to express our continued desire to work together, to work together to achieve common security objectives. These include countering violent extremism, ensuring the security of Egypt's borders and the Sinai region, maintaining the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, and supporting Egypt's democratic transition.
Both President Morsi and Minister Al-Sisi underscored their commitment to the Camp David peace treaty and to improving cooperation on border security and the Sinai. The Department of Defense is working with the Egyptians to help them improve their capabilities to deal with these challenges and counterterrorism. We are also making clear that progress on political and economic fronts and reforms will help ensure that Egypt maintains U.S. support. This is particularly important given congressional concerns.
As President Morsi and the Egyptian government work to implement political and economic reform, they will find a strong partner in the United States. That has been underscored by President Obama and Secretary Kerry.
The Kingdom of Jordan is another very key U.S. partner in the region. Jordan is facing its own set of political, economic and security challenges, including its border with Syria. In my visit to Amman, I reassured the Jordanians that the United States continues to stay committed to the stability of Jordan and to deepening our close defense cooperation and joint contingency planning with the Jordanian military.
Hundreds of DOD personnel are working alongside their Jordanian counterparts to enhance Jordan's border security and counter chemical weapons capabilities. As President Obama has said, we are also supporting King Abdullah's efforts to pursue political and economic reforms with Jordan.
As in Israel, the civil war in Syria was a focus of my discussions in Amman. As you all know, the conflict in Syria is intensifying and becoming more sectarian. The possibilities of state fragmentation are increasing, as are the risks of extremism and proliferation. The humanitarian situation is worsening.
The situation is complex and combustible. The United States has been leading the international community in organizing and applying sanctions and is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Earlier today in Rome, Secretary Kerry announced that the president has authorized an additional $100 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian people. This brings our total humanitarian assistance package to nearly $510 million.
We have given non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, including the armed opposition, and that support is growing. The U.S. military has been very involved in delivering those supplies and planning. We are also urging Russia and China to do more to help resolve this conflict, because it is also clearly in their interests to end the war.
As you know, Secretary Kerry was in Russia this week meeting with Russian leaders on the Syrian situation, as well as other bilateral interests. Coming out of those meetings, Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced they will seek to convene an international conference, with representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, to determine how to implement a political transition in Syria.
Using the full range of tools, the United States will continue to work toward achieving our goal of ending the violence and helping the Syrian people transition to a post-Assad authority. This will help restore stability, peace, and hope for all Syrian people. That goal is shared by our allies in the region, not only those bordering Syria, but also our partners in the gulf.
During the course of my discussions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, concerns over Iran's support for the Assad regime, its destabilizing activities, and its nuclear program were at the top of the agenda. The United States will continue to lead diplomatic efforts and international economic sanctions to pressure Iran into abandoning the pursuit of nuclear weapons and meeting their international obligations.
There's a presidential election next month in Iran, and no one can predict with any certainty if that might affect the future direction of Iranian policies. As you all know, President Obama has made it clear, very clear, that our policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and he's taken no option off the table to ensure that outcome. I stressed that point during my discussions in the gulf.
A key element of our efforts to counter Iranian threats is building a cooperative defense network, raising the military capabilities of our partners in the gulf who share our commitment to regional security and our concerns about Iran and violent extremism on the Arabian Peninsula.
While in Saudi Arabia and UAE, I finalized agreements to provide their Air Forces with access to significant new capabilities. Saudi Arabia has committed to purchasing all 84 Boeing F-15SA fighter aircraft that were part of a landmark sale in 2010. The United Arab Emirates is moving forward with the purchase of 25 F-16 Desert Falcons, which will further enhance their ability to participate in coalition operations such as Libya and Afghanistan, where they have made important contributions and will continue to make important contributions.
Along with other common efforts with gulf states in areas such as missile defense, this new arrangement ensures that we are coordinating effectively against Iran and other shared security challenges. Our joint exercises, including land, air, and sea scenarios, allow U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council militaries to maintain readiness and improve the ability of our forces to work seamlessly together. One example is the International Mine Countermeasure Exercise, which began this week in the Persian Gulf and hosted by the U.S. 5th Fleet.
A robust U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf has been a priority for the department. Even as the number of U.S. troops in the region has decreased since the end of the Iraq war, even though that has been the case, we have made a determined effort to position high-end air, missile defense, and naval assets to deter Iranian aggression and respond to other contingencies, such as F-22 fighters, ballistic missile defense ships, and sophisticated radars, mine-countermeasure assets, and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
We have also maintained a significant U.S. Army presence in Kuwait. Even as we put our presence on a more sustainable long-term footing, our capabilities in the region will far exceed those that were in place September 11, 2001. Our defense relationships are also much stronger and far more robust and sophisticated.
The Department of Defense is adjusting its global footprint and activities. We're doing this because we must adapt to declining defense budgets at home, but the president's defense strategic guidance makes very clear that the Middle East remains a top priority and that we will remain prepared to deal with the full range of threats to our interests, our allies' interests at this time of uncertainty and turmoil.
Each nation in the region is different and facing different combinations of threats and challenges. But these are regional challenges. All regional challenges I've described tonight, whether it's the nuclear challenge posed by Iran, dangerous instability in Syria, or the continuing threat of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, all regional threats.
These common challenges must be met through the force of coalitions of common interests, which include Israel and other allies in the region. A common thread woven into the Middle East fabric is that the most enduring and effective solutions to the challenges facing the region are political, not military. America's role in the Middle East is to continue to help influence and shape the course of events, using diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, intelligence, and security tools in coordination with all of our allies.
More than 45 years after I first learned about the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and West Bank as a young Army recruit, I found myself surveying this terrain aboard an IDF helicopter alongside another old soldier, Israeli Minister of Defense Bogie Ya'alon. As we toured the region, I thought about what's possible, what's possible if these democratic transitions in the Middle East can succeed and if a sustainable and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ultimately achieved. That brings new possibilities, new possibilities to an old regime.
The old order in the Middle East is disappearing, and what will replace it remains unknown. There will continue to be instability -- there will continue to be instability in the region as this process plays out, and we all must adjust accordingly.
But the best hope for long-term stability relies on countries like Egypt, and Libya, and Syria making transitions to democratic rule. These transitions need to be supported by institutions and legal frameworks. These institutions and legal frameworks respect human life and liberties and dignity and tolerance and property for all citizens.
To assist these nations in achieving these goals, the United States will remain engaged in helping shape the new order, but we must engage wisely. This will require a clear understanding of our national interests, our limitations, and an appreciation for the complexities of this unpredictable, contradictory, yet hopeful region of the world.
Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you.
MR. ROBERT SATLOFF: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for that deep and comprehensive assessment, evaluation from your trip, and your observations about Middle East security today. I have the -- I have the privilege of being able to ask you just a couple of questions before I know you have to depart. And I know there's at least 300 people that wish that they shared my responsibility.
SEC. HAGEL: As long as I don't get one from Cal, it's all right. (Laughter.)
MR. SATLOFF: Mr. Secretary, I first want to ask you a question about Syria. There's at least one phrase that didn't appear in your text, and perhaps appropriately so, and that's the phrase "red line." So I would be grateful if you could give us your sense of where we are on assessing the violation of the president's red line, but more generally, on the idea of red lines themselves and the appropriateness of using them to define yards beyond which people should not go and behaviors that we're trying to prevent.
SEC. HAGEL: Is that all?
MR. SATLOFF: That's all, sir. (Laughter.)
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, Rob, as you know, I am no longer a United States senator, so I can say anything as irresponsibly as I would like. (Laughter.) But -- oh, that's -- I'll pay a price for that. (Laughter.)
Well, let me see if I can work my way through that. You surely don't expect me to publicly question anybody's use of red lines?
But in a very serious response, because it's a serious question, the president has been rather clear on this point, that we take all of this -- and I've noted it in my comments -- very seriously, use of chemical weapons. He has said, I have said, Secretary Kerry has said, we continue to assess and collaborate with our intelligence agencies and other intelligence agencies on the question whether, when, who, and all the other relevant questions that have to be satisfied before any options are exercised that the president has.
And I think it's fair to say that we're all probably a little wiser today than maybe before. And when we take action, there's always the reality -- and you accept that there may be consequences and unintended consequences may come from that. There are also consequences and unintended consequences that come from inaction.
So we continue to dwell very seriously on what happened and when and all the other questions that must be asked by a responsible leader. And I think the president has always seen -- whether it's Syria or any other international matter or any matter a president has responsibility for. And certainly, I have some responsibility for the options that I give him through the Defense Department and whatever advice he asks for from me. And I take that seriously, that we know what we're talking about and that we're dealing with the facts.
And that may not be a good enough answer or a good answer, but right now, that's the most honest answer I can give you.
MR. SATLOFF: Thank you. Can't ask for anything more than the most honest answer, so thank you. Mr. Secretary, I just want to ask one question about Iran. I think everyone was quite pleased to hear you restate American policy on Iran that you and the president have stated on many occasions about the need to prevent Iran from -- from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we have been -- we have been working in many different realms, diplomatic, economic sanctions, and making sure that there's a credible threat of alternatives that the Iranians know about.
Now, I want to match -- connect that third point with your comment toward the end of your remarks about sequestration and limitations. We've had to withdraw a second carrier from the gulf. And I want to just ask you to discuss with us sort of the difficulties and the balancing of trying to deal with the limitations and the sequestration and the cuts at the same time as we need to project credible threats and project our power and our commitment to an adversary like Iran.
SEC. HAGEL: Let me answer it this way. And it's an important question. And it's one that the president deals with, I deal with, Secretary Kerry deals with every day, because in life, in this job, when you are the most powerful country in the world, there are many audiences out there. There are friendly audiences, and then there are not so friendly audiences. And those who don't wish us well pay attention just like the people who support us.
So what you say and how you say it and recognition of the transparency of our system, which I don't think anybody would trade, about budget limitations are all out there for people to see.
Now, that said, I'm going to go back a little bit to your first question on Syria, as I answer your question on Iran and capabilities and how do we deal with this and so on. I mentioned in my speech that Secretary Kerry was in Russia, and he and Minister Lavrov have announced an agreement to go forward on the basis of our common interests on dealing with Syria, the region, use of chemical weapons.
Now, I bring that up as an example of -- and I also mentioned this in a broader way -- great powers use all of their tools. It isn't just 11 carriers and carrier battle groups and all the air wings and all the missiles. Those are important. But those are -- those are elements, important elements of protecting one's interests and working with one's allies. I also talked about building up regional common interests in our allies to protect their interests, as we help them protect their own interests.
No nation is -- I don't think in the world that we're in and where we're going -- is going to be powerful enough to fix every problem themselves. It's too big, the problems, the challenges. They are too complicated. And even if we had twice the budget we have now, you couldn't fix all the problems.
So that leads I think most of us to believe that these alliances are absolutely critical. You multiply your force ability with alliances. Everyone knows that. The capability of those alliances is critical to that.
The Syrian example of what we're doing, what Secretary Kerry is doing and the president is doing and others, on trying to build those coalitions to deal -- as I noted with Iran -- Syria is now -- the humanitarian devastation that's occurring has to be factored into this. Jordan in particular is vulnerable here on this, and we're working with Jordan, as I said. But these all are working toward the common interests of our common goals and, as I said, in a regional way, and I also noted that each is specific.
Now, specifically to your question about budget limitations to protect our security interests and be able to fulfill our commitments to help protect our allies, I noted in an inventory of what our priorities were in the Middle East. I started with the security of Israel. The second point I made was our allies, counterterrorism, so on.
We have the capabilities required, bottom line. As secretary of defense, I can tell you that, I will tell you that. It's an honest response. If I didn't think we had those capabilities or we weren't going to have them because of the budget adjustments we're making, I would have no choice but to go to the Congress and the president and say.
Now, does that mean we are having to adjust? Absolutely, it does. It does mean that we have to adjust. And we are adjusting. And we're having to make some tough choices. And those tough choices are based on the prioritization first of our national security interests.
There are a lot of things we can do without. No one likes to have budget cut. But our security interests are paramount. Our budget this year, our baseline budget that I presented to the Congress, the president's budget was $527 billion baseline for the Defense Department. On top of that is another account called the overseas contingency operation, which we haven't yet come in with that, and my comptroller would be very unhappy if I announced that tonight, because we’re still working with OMB on this and the president. But it's significant amount of money, on top of the baseline budget.
We can protect the interests of this country with that budget and still make the adjustments that we have to make and do the things that the American people expect us to do, our allies expect us to do, we're committed to do.
MR. SATLOFF: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (Applause.)
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.