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Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (Eisenhower Award)

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, D.C., Thursday, March 29, 2012

Well, thank you very much. I’m very honored.  For those of us who have dedicated our lives to public service—this is really a lesson for the Presidential Fellows—let me tell you something, you’re not going to make a hell of a lot of money and you’re going to endure a great many challenges and pain in public service.  But there’s one great reward for public service.  The reward is that if you can make the lives of your children a little better for the future, then that makes it all worthwhile. 

To be able to receive this kind of honor also makes it very worthwhile because it is a recognition that in the end, the work that you do and the struggle you endure through thick and thin is worthwhile.  A young President said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”   And in many ways I think Dwight Eisenhower and this award recognizes that your dedication to public service and making the lives of our children better in the future is what America needs to be all about: we need to give something back to this country and to recognize that all of us have a duty to give back to a country that has given us so much.

To Togo, thank you very much, and thank you for your commitment to public service and our veterans.  I had the honor of serving with Togo in the Clinton administration when I was Chief of Staff to the President.  I had the greatest respect for his service as the Secretary of the Army and as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.  In my current capacity as Secretary, I have even greater respect for his contribution to the country.

I’d also like to thank David Abshire for putting this evening together.  David, your leadership is absolutely spectacular.  What you’ve done for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress is a reflection of your love for the country and of your dedication to what this nation needs for the future.  What greater expression of that love is there than the work of this center.  I had the pleasure of meeting with the Center’s Presidential Fellows before dinner.  I enjoyed the opportunity to hear the dedication that they have to the work that they do and the nation.  I commend your long and distinguished commitment to public service and it’s reflected in the young people and in the Center.  It is encouraging today to look at these people and know that someday the country will be in their hands.

I had the opportunity to briefly co-chair a study at the Center on “Strengthening America’s Future” and  as fate would have it, I was asked by President Obama to “strengthen America’s future” by becoming the Director of the CIA.  And with great respect to the Center, I don’t think they would have handled the operation against...Osama bin Laden as effectively as the CIA did.

I also want to thank my friend David Gergen for acting as the master of ceremonies tonight.  David and I both worked in the Nixon Administration.  I got fired.  David wasn’t so lucky.  Both of us have seen a lot through our long careers – both good and bad – but neither of us have lost our commitment to a democracy that represents the best hope for our people.  The goal of public service is public service – trying to improve the lives of our citizens.  David understands that – and his forthright and honest advice to Presidents both Republican and Democrat – often collided with politics and political advisors, but not with good policy and good government.

And I also want to pay tribute to Stanley Zax, who also helped put this dinner together and for the generosity of the other donors as well.  Cardinal McCarrick, I’m honored by your presence, and I have always appreciated your spiritual leadership over all the years I’ve been in this town.

It’s great to see so many other friends here this evening as well.  In the 40 years that I’ve been in and out of Washington, I really treasure the friendships that I’ve made throughout those years.  When I spoke to the Gridiron Dinner the other night, I told them I was honored to be at the fourth largest gathering of the veterans of the Spanish-American War.  In some ways, that applies to this group.  When I say, “Remember the Maine!” there are some of you that really do.

Nights like tonight remind me that a lot of us have been here long enough to remember when Republicans and Democrats actually worked together… the other night I had the opportunity to participate in a ceremony that honored Bob Dole and Howard Baker and it reminded me of the leadership of the experience to be a part of when I was in the Congress.  I remember when Mike Mansfield and George Aiken would have coffee together every morning.  I remember Tip O'Neill and Bob Michael being able to enjoy a drink together and play golf together and work on the tough issues that faced the country.  They worked together because they believed that compromise was not a dirty word, but it was the essence of how you governed the country.  They worked together because they were willing to take the risks needed to solve problems. The budget was balanced because of that leadership, because of their work, and governing was considered good politics, because it was. 

It is a sad commentary that we come together at a time when partisanship appears to be more important than statesmanship and when politics is more important than policy.  And then sound bites are more important than solutions. 

President Eisenhower would have lamented the state of the nation.  Yet tonight, we celebrate him and the enduring American spirit he represents because he was always about mission and about getting the job done.  And he was always about dedicating everything he did to protecting this country and improving the lives of our children for the future.

It is an honor to be associated with the legacy of Dwight David Eisenhower through this award.  I had the chance to meet him personally over 40 years ago at Gettysburg.  For me, a former officer in the Army, it was an inspiration I’ll never forget, to be able to meet one of my heroes.   

For those who visit my office in the Pentagon, General Eisenhower’s portrait hangs above my desk and alongside it is a portrait of General George Marshall.  When faced with a tough decision I can look up at him and say, “So, what the hell would you do, Ike?”  The problem is, with the exception of a few nights after a scotch, he never talks back. 

Yet, even if I can’t summon Eisenhower’s ghost, I’ve at least been able to draw some lessons from Eisenhower’s life of service and his presidency, particularly on the importance of statesmanship, of long-term strategic planning and of leadership in war and politics.  He understood the importance of trust, of listening, of working with brilliant egos to capture their best thoughts and reject their worst instincts. 

Eisenhower’s wartime experience had taught him that long-term planning was difficult to maintain because the pace of daily operations and erupting crises competed for time and attention.  But careful planning was essential to successful operations.  When Eisenhower assumed the Presidency, he took the lessons of war and set out to craft a long-term defense strategy for peace. 

Eisenhower’s “Project Solarium” assembled teams of advisers to explore competing ideas and contrarian viewpoints.  He wanted the existing national security policy to be challenged on its most basic assumptions.  And he gave the teams a short deadline – just three months to do their work. 

The result of the exercise was Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy.  It was a truly long-term strategy that recognized the Cold War would be a prolonged contest of competitive advantage, but one that America would eventually win.  It was not perfect – no strategy is – but it was the product of genuine debate and an effort to forge consensus across the national security apparatus.  As a biography I’m reading about Eisenhower explains, the new strategy embodied the essential aspects of his leadership: “compromise, patience, and conviction that time was on America’s side.”

Eisenhower’s legacy remains valuable and instructive today, because there is no question that our nation is at a strategic turning point as we wind down two wars that have consumed our military for the past decade. 

Even as those wars recede, we are confronted with a range of threats as complex as any this nation has faced throughout its history.  We are still at war in Afghanistan, although 2011 was a turning point and thanks to John Allen we are putting a strategy in place, we will continue to face challenges there.  Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism remains real. Although its top leadership have been decimated, but terrorist groups still aim to do us harm, and they are still there, from Yemen, to Somalia, to North Africa.  We face rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea who threaten global stability.  There is continuing turmoil and unrest in the Middle East. 

We are challenged by rising powers in Asia.  And new weapons, such as cyber, will change how wars are fought in the future.  Cyber represents the kind of silent attack that can take down our power grid, our financial system, our governmental system, and cripple this nation.

So at the same time we are facing these myriad threats, we are facing another national security threat, the long-term debt and high deficits.  Congress has failed to enact a kind of comprehensive plan that is essential to addressing this kind of debt.  They did, however, address the one third of the budget called discretionary spending and have promised to reduce it by over 900 billion over the next ten years.  As a result, we have been required by Congress to reduce the defense budget by half a trillion dollars over the next decade. 

As painful as the reductions are, the Department of Defense must do its part to help America put its fiscal house in order.  We do not have to choose between national security and fiscal responsibility.  That’s because I agree with what President Eisenhower said in his first State of the Union: “To amass military power without regard to economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.” 

In order to avoid either of these outcomes, and instead lay the foundation for America’s continued global leadership, we have spent much of the last year at the Pentagon crafting a new defense strategy for the long-haul.  In doing so, the entire leadership of the Department – the service chiefs, service secretaries, combatant commanders, and the President himself, all working together, to build the force America will need not just for today, but for tomorrow – a force for the 21st century.

Our approach has been to take this fiscal crisis as an opportunity to think about how to better meet the security challenges this new century.  The strategy that we have developed for the future envisions a force that is smaller and is leaner, but its great strength is that it will be agile, technologically advanced and flexible enough to confront a range of adversaries.  It will be able to confront aggression anytime, anyplace.

Crafting this strategy, and building this force, while meeting mandated savings targets, has required that we make tradeoffs and put our long-term interests ahead of short-term political pressures.  I cannot cut the defense budget by half a trillion dollars and not have it involve pain.

But that’s the nature of governing.  One thing that I’ve learned over my career is that governing requires people coming together to get things done, not to pound their fists on the table, not stand in the way, but to get the job done.  Frankly, one of my greatest concerns as Secretary of Defense is the dysfunction that we see in Washington.  It threatens our security and it raises questions about the capacity of our democracy to respond to crisis.  But dysfunction is a political crutch, it is a political excuse – it is not a part of the American spirit.

The strategy and the defense budget we have developed shows that it’s still possible to forge consensus and take the long-term view at the highest levels of government.  We have presented this strategy and budget to Congress.  My hope is that they will work with us to implement it and ensure that we have the strong military this country needs for the future. And they cannot allow, and we must take action to ensure that sequestration does not happen. For it would double the number of cuts, hollow out the force, and devastate our national defense. 

Congress needs to listen to the lessons from Eisenhower.  One other important lesson we should learn from Ike is very clear: the service and sacrifice of a single generation can leave all of us a better life.  We saw that after World War II with the greatest generation. 

It is a legacy proudly carried on by a next greatest generation of Americans who have volunteered to be sent to faraway battlefields over the last ten years.  These are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line every day.  To fight, and yes, to die if necessary for their country.  Surely, if this next greatest generation is willing to take the risks necessary to keep America safe, our political leadership should be willing to take the risks necessary to solve the problems facing this nation.

I recently returned from Afghanistan where I visited with our troops.  I was struck by how even in a tough situation, those dedicated young men and women remain intently focused on the long-term mission.  Violence is down.  The Taliban have been weakened.  The Afghan Army is fighting alongside U.S. and ISAF forces.  The transition of areas to Afghan control and security is working.  We cannot allow the outrages of war to undermine the effective strategy that General Allen and his forces have put in place.  The American people are tired of war, just as the Afghan people are tired of war. 

That is understandable, but we must summon the will to see this strategy through to success, remembering what Eisenhower once said: “Without American leadership in the search, the pursuit of a just and enduing peace is hopeless.  Nowhere in the world – outside this land – is there the richness of resources, stamina, and will needed to lead what at times may be a costly and exhausting effort.”

Over a decade of conflict, we have been tested by tragedies, setbacks, and the hell of war itself.  In the days ahead, we will be tested again and again.  But we can’t lose sight of why we fight – to defend our country and ensure that we will never be attacked as we were on 9/11.  But most importantly, to give our children a better life.

With apologies to Cardinal McCarrick and Rabbi Haberman, I’m reminded of a story I often tell of a rabbi and a priest who decided they would get to know each other better.

So, one evening, they went 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 is going to be fine in this country.  But very frankly, it doesn't mean a damn thing unless we are willing to fight for it, to fight for the American dream of a better life, to fight for a government of, by and for the people.

Thank you, may God bless our great military, may God bless all of you, and may God bless America.

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