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McConnell Center Lecture: "Fighting for the American Dream"

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, McConnell Center, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, Thursday, March 01, 2012

Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Thank you.  I deeply appreciate the kind introduction and your warm reception and the opportunity to be here in Louisville tonight.  I am truly honored.  This is a great honor to be at the University of Louisville and to see such a large crowd gathered for this event.  This is a great university.  This is a great state.  And you’ve got a great basketball team. 

Being here with such a large audience kind of makes me wonder how many of you thought that the speaker this evening was somebody named Pitino and not Panetta.  But whether it’s Pitino or Panetta, you’re definitely getting an Italian tonight, and I can assure you that both of us believe that a sound defense is a key to winning the game. 

I’d like to thank Provost Willihnganz and Dr. Gregg for hosting me here tonight, and I in particular would like to thank my friend, Senator Mitch McConnell, for that very kind introduction and for inviting me to come down to visit his alma mater and to see this great city and the great people of Louisville.

Mitch McConnell and I got our start working in the United States Senate as legislative aides in the 1960s.  It was at that time I was working for a Republican and so was he.  Between the two of us, between the two of us we have over 40 years of experience in Washington.  You have every right to question our sanity.  But not our sense of duty.

Over the decades of working together I’ve developed a great respect for Mitch and for his leadership, and in particular his dedication to public service.  We have always enjoyed a strong working relationship and a strong friendship.  Because whether you are the son of Italian immigrants, or the son of a father who fought in World War II, we both have been blessed with the opportunity to serve this great nation of ours that we love so much.

When I learned that I would be coming down here to the Bluegrass State to give a speech, my thoughts immediately turned to one of Senator McConnell’s most distinguished predecessors, Henry Clay.  As you know, he was an extraordinary public servant in the 19th century.  He also had a great way with words. 

Once when a very long-winded colleague was delivering a particularly lengthy and boring speech on the floor of the Congress, and everyone, including Henry Clay, was obviously losing their patience and making that loss of patience very clear, that colleague turned to Clay and said, you speak for the present generation, but I speak for posterity, for future generations.  Yes, replied Clay, but you seem determined to continue speaking until your future audience arrives. 

I promise that I won’t be speaking for posterity or eternally this evening.  However, I do want to share with you some thoughts because this chance gives me an opportunity to also speak about the future of the nation. 

Tonight I want to talk about service to the country, how public servants help forge the strong democracy we have today and how we all have an opportunity and indeed a responsibility to help secure and strengthen that security for tomorrow.  This great university and the McConnell Center are making vital contributions to educating the citizen leaders who will help confront the challenges and the opportunities that face all of us in the 21st century.  I had a chance to meet with those students before coming here and it was a great – it’s a great thrill to have that opportunity. 

As Mitch pointed out, my wife Sylvia and I established a similar public policy institute at California State University, and the purpose is to try to inspire young people to get involved and be part of public service.  I deeply appreciate the good work that all these education centers do to try to give young people a chance, the opportunity to see what public service is all about.

That mission is important because all of us have a tremendous stake in how the nation navigates the considerable challenges that we are facing, from the economy to energy, from war to international diplomacy, from deficits to defense.  And all of you have a responsibility as citizens to help the country confront these challenges.  It’s a responsibility that does not just rest with the president and with the elected leaders of the nation.  It rests with all of us and with all of you.

For more than two centuries our democracy has survived because our heritage is built on giving something back to the nation.  That is at the heart of what public service is all about.  And I’m a big believer in the responsibility of public service.  That goes back to what this country meant not only for me but for my family.

As I said, I’m the son of Italian immigrants who, like millions of others, came to this country with few skills and little money in their pocket and very little English language ability.  But they understood the dream that is America.  I would ask my father, why would you travel those thousands of miles to a strange country?  They came from a poor area of Italy but they at least had the comfort of family.  Why would you pick up, leave your family and travel all that distance?

And I never forgot his response.  He said, because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life.  That is the American dream, to give our children that better life.  And it is the fundamental bond that we all share. 

Every Sunday at dinner as a boy we had a tradition in my family of all gathering for dinner on Sundays.  My parents would tell my brother and myself that we had a duty to give something back to this country which gave them so much.  And with that advice came a set of values – hard work, honesty, clear sense of right and wrong, qualities that are essential to life and to citizenship.

As a young boy I was taught early on the importance of hard work.  My parents ran a restaurant in Monterey during the war years, and my earliest recollections were washing glasses in the back of that restaurant.  They believed that child labor was a requirement.  Then they bought a farm in Carmel Valley and my father planted walnuts.  And I can remember moving irrigation pipes, working with a hoe alongside my father, and as the trees matured my father would go around with the pole and hook and knock down the walnuts.  That’s what they did in those days.  And my brother and I would be under the trees picking up the walnuts. 

When I got elected to Congress my father said that I had been well trained to go to Washington because I’d been dodging nuts all my life.  It was good training.

Along with the inspiration of my parents and two years of service in the Army, and at that time a young president who said that we should ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, all of that inspired me to serve.  In many ways Kennedy’s words inspired a whole generation and the nation benefited from that, from the impact of a generation that got involved in civil rights and education, worked in the Peace Corps and got involved in issues of war and peace.

That torch of service and sacrifice has now passed to a new generation, and this nation once again has benefited from that.  It has been a decade of turmoil these last 10 years, of war and of crisis.  But like every such decade in our history, there have been those who are willing to step forward to give something back to their country.  And no group has given more than the men and women in the United States military. 

The sacrifice that they have made and that their families and loved ones have made are true symbols of what public service is all about.  Stepping forward to serve the country at a time of war takes uncommon courage and uncommon bravery, and millions have done so in the 10 years since our country was attacked on September 11th.

That includes many here in Louisville.  Tonight we are honored to be joined by soldiers from nearby Fort Knox and by members of the Kentucky National Guard.  This audience includes, as I understand, some of the nearly 800 military veterans now enrolled at the University of Louisville.  We are also joined by the newest members of the military family – cadets from the university’s ROTC program – and in the coming years they will have the opportunity to join more than 300 Louisville ROTC graduates who have served in the military as commissioned officers. 

I, too, am a product of an ROTC program at the University of Santa Clara, and that’s what led to my serving two years in the Army, so I really appreciate the benefits of that program in helping young people be able to enter our military.

To the cadets I want to say that in volunteering to make this commitment you have distinguished yourselves in a profound and in an honorable way.  You have chosen the path of service.  I would urge all of you here, even those for whom military service is not an option or a desire, to consider how you can give back to the country that has given us so much. 

Remember that you too have a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute and make a difference, and I have always said that the test in life is whether somebody made a difference.  And for those who are serving or planning to serve in uniform, please know that the country is inspired and strengthened by your example.  Every day, every day that I have served in the office of secretary of Defense, and before that as director of the CIA, I have been privileged to see this new generation proving once again the strength, the resilience of the American spirit and the unflagging commitment of our citizens to be willing to fight and, yes, to sacrifice for the American dream.

Thanks to their service and thanks to their sacrifice, our country has in many ways reached a strategic turning point after 10 years of war, and, I believe, an historic opportunity to help secure the American dream of a better future for our children.  Because of their service, because of their sacrifice we were able to bring the Iraq war to an honorable conclusion and give Iraq the responsibility to govern and secure itself.  It will not be easy but they have the opportunity to establish a democracy in a key part of the world.

In addition, because of their service and sacrifices, I was able to go to Iraq when we Cased the Colors.  It was a ceremony in which we paid tribute to those that had sacrificed their lives to allow Iraq to be governed by the Iraqi people.  Last night at the White House we honored those who served in Iraq.  It was the beginning, not the end of a series of tributes that this country will pay to the veterans of that conflict.

Afghanistan remains an extremely challenging campaign, but 2011 was in many ways a turning point in that effort as well.  We had begun to draw down our troops and transition to Afghan-led security and responsibility, and we have seen the level of violence go down and the ability of the Afghan army to engage in operations and secure areas that we’ve transitioned to their control.  Our goal is that by the end of 2014 the Afghans will have the responsibility to govern and secure themselves.  And let me be very clear.  The brutal attacks that we’ve seen over the last few days on our troops will not change and will not alter our commitment to get this job done. 

On terrorism, we have successfully weakened al-Qaida and we have decimated its leadership under bin Laden.  We’ve demonstrated that we will continue to do everything possible to protect our citizens and our security from terrorism.  And meanwhile, we have reasserted our essential global leadership role and shown that we remain an indispensable partner to a stable and secure world. 

In Libya we led an international coalition that helped give Libya back to the Libyan people.  I had the chance recently to go to Tripoli and was deeply moved by the determination of the Libyan people to try to forge that better future for themselves.  More broadly, through my travels as secretary of Defense over the last eight months, a consistent theme has been the desire by countries across the globe, including our allies, old allies, new partners, to increase their partnership with our military forces. 

All of this has been achieved because there were brave men and women who were willing to serve their nation, who were willing to put their lives on the line, who were willing to die to protect this country.  We owe it to them to learn the lessons of the past and to build a better future for them and for their children.

That means that as they return home we must embrace them and support them in communities like this across the country, whether it’s by helping them pursue an education at schools like Louisville, or providing assistance in finding a job or starting a business.  And as we turn the corner on a decade of war, it is absolutely vital that we maintain and even enhance the very strengths that have allowed us to overcome the challenges that we have faced throughout our history.

We must maintain the strongest military in the world and effective diplomacy and an innovative and dynamic and strong economy.  Those are all elements of a strong national security.  Underpinning all of that is the fact that, despite all the frustrations that we have, we have the best system of government on earth, and one that I’ve said gives all of us the responsibility to govern this nation. 

That responsibility is a heavy one because, despite what I’ve just said we’ve achieved, the challenges that still confront us are numerous and they are complex.  There are no simple answers here, there are no simple solutions.  We are still a nation at war in Afghanistan. We still face the threat from terrorism.  We confronted it in the FATA and Pakistan.  The terrorism is still there, still in Somalia, still in Yemen, still in North Africa, and they continue to plan attacks on this country.

We deal with the dangerous proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  We have to confront the behavior of Iran and North Korea who continue to threaten global stability.  There is a continuing turmoil and unrest in the Middle East.  Rising powers in Asia test international relationships.  And there are growing concerns about cyber-intrusions and cyber-attacks, a whole new area of the war front that can take place in the future. 

At the same time, we face an additional threat to our national security, which must also be confronted, and that is long-term debt and high deficits.  As someone who spent much of my time in public service working on fiscal policy, I believe that if the country doesn't control and discipline its budgets, it will inflict severe damage on our national security.

It would deprive us of the very resources that we require at the Department of Defense.  And it would also hurt the quality of life of the American people, something that is equally important to our broader national security.

I refuse to believe that we must be forced to choose between our national security and fiscal responsibility.  But to avoid that choice, we have to be willing to make difficult decisions about how to reshape our defense strategy, how to maintain our military strength for the future, while also doing our part to reduce the deficit.

A bipartisan Congress mandated in the Budget Control Act that we should reduce the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years.  We have come together at the Defense Department with the service chiefs, with the combatant commander, with my undersecretaries, to try to develop a strategy, not just for now, but in the future, that would be the basis for making the decisions, the budget decisions, in order to achieve those savings.

We have done that.  We have stepped up to the plate.  This has been an enormous undertaking.  But we have developed a plan and a strategy to develop that force that we need for the future, to reduce defense spending by nearly half-a-trillion dollars over the next decade.

The force for the future will, by necessity, be smaller, but we believe that we must ensure that it is supremely capable and ready and agile and prepared to go wherever we need them to go in order to defend this country, and that we can maintain that force with a decisive, technological edge in order to confront aggression and effectively defend this country and our global interests in the 21st century.

We are going to maintain and even enhance our presence in vital regions of the world, like the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region, to develop an innovative force that will establish partnerships and a presence from Europe, to Africa, from Latin America, to East Asia.  And let me be clear:  We will be able to defeat any adversary, any time, anywhere.

We must continue to invest in new capabilities, like cyber and unmanned systems and space and the continued growth of Special Operations forces.  Those technologies will be crucial to our ability to have a strong defense in the future.

And we also need to be able to mobilize, and that means maintaining a strong National Guard and a strong Reserve, maintaining our industrial base so that if we need the ships and if we need the tanks and if we need the equipment, that that industrial base will be there and we will have the skills and the crafts that are so important to our national security, not just now, but in the future.

To do this, we have to make some painful and politically tough decisions.  And we have.

I can't cut a half-a-trillion dollars from the defense budget and not have it impact on 50 states in some way.  But let me also say this:  We cannot balance the federal budget on the back of defense alone.  We have done our part.  Now it's time for Congress to step up to the plate and make sure that we do not devastate our national defense by allowing this mechanism called sequester to go into effect.  That would -- that sequester would impose another $500 billion in cuts, across-the-board defense cuts that would be devastating to our national defense.

Additional deficit reduction must be made through a comprehensive and balanced deficit-reduction plan, which will involve making decisions, not just on defense, but on every other area of federal spending and revenues.

Making these tough decisions is what our Forefathers intended when they established this great country.  They made this remarkable system of three separate but equal branches of government.  It is a wonderful formula for ensuring that power is never centralized in any one branch of government.  But it also happens to be a perfect formula for gridlock.

And the key to breaking that gridlock has to rest with people that are willing to exercise leadership, to find compromise and to make sacrifices in order to find answers.

As we confront the broader set of choices and decisions that we need to be made to put America's fiscal house in order, all of us in Washington -- all of us in Washington -- need to demonstrate the same leadership -- the same leadership that we've counted on our troops to display in battle.  They made sacrifices in order to achieve their mission; surely, those of us in Washington can make sacrifices in order to govern this nation.

We know from our history that the American people have always overcome crisis and adversity.  But we can't just sit back and count on things to work out.  It will take leadership, it will take sacrifice, and it will take a willingness to fight, to secure that dream for the future.

I often tell the story of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other and understand each other's religion.  And so one evening, they thought they would go to a boxing match, thinking that if they went to events together, they would discuss each other's religion.  And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross, and the rabbi nudged the priest and said, what does that mean?  The priest said, it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight. 

We bless ourselves with the hope that everything will be fine in this country.  But very frankly, it doesn't mean a damn thing unless we are willing to fight for it.

If we can summon that spirit of leadership and service and sacrifice and fight for what's right, I believe that we can turn crisis into opportunity and demonstrate to the world that this resilient American spirit will endure for our children and their children and beyond.

Captain Stacee Blackburn, a 2004 Louisville graduate, was also a McConnell Center scholar, is an example of what I'm talking about.  Stacy serves in the Army as a JAG officer, and she, too, recently returned from Afghanistan.  Like me, her decision to enter public service goes back to the lessons that were instilled in her by her family.

As a young girl reading her grandfather's poems about serving in World War II as part of the “greatest generation,” she, for the first time, learned what it was like to be part of something bigger than herself. 

Stacee is now part of something bigger than herself, part of the next generation that is willing to fight and, if necessary, die for their country.  Because of Stacy and because of millions like her, we all pledge to fight, to fight for that dream of a better life, to fight for an America that will always remain the strongest power on earth.  And most importantly, to fight for an America that will always be a government of, by and for all people.

Thank you very much. 

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