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American-Turkish Council Dinner

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, D.C., Monday, June 11, 2012

Thank you very much. 

I’m very pleased to have this opportunity, because as many of you know, I too am the son of immigrants, Italian immigrants, who like millions of others who came to this country, came here in the early ‘30s with very little money, very few language skills, very few capabilities, but they were in search of the dream that America is all about. 

Like Turkish parents, they made sure that their sons knew what work was all about.  My parents opened a restaurant in downtown Monterrey, and I think I was only about five years old when I was washing glasses in that restaurant.  My parents believed that child labor was a requirement.  Later, my father bought a small ranch in Carmel Valley, planted walnut trees and I worked alongside of him on those walnut trees, and those walnut trees got bigger, and my father in those days used to go around with a pole and shake the walnuts loose, and I’d have to get out of the way as I scooped them up.

I was later told that my experience on the walnut farm prepared me well for life in Washington, because I’d been dodging nuts my whole life!

So it’s a particular pleasure to be with this group.

I used to ask my father “Why did you come all of that distance, and come to this land – 3,000 miles?”  He said the reason was because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life here.  That is the dream.  It’s the American dream, but it’s also the dream that everyone has for their children:  the dream of ultimately giving them a better life.

That’s why it is a particular pleasure to know that our Ambassador to Turkey, Frank Ricciardone, is here, and I want to thank him for his outstanding work and for representing our nation in Ankara. 

I’ve had a chance to be with him when I’ve gone there and I’ve really enjoyed his company.  Besides that, who else can tell you where the best Italian restaurants are in town?

Minister Yilmaz, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to establish a strong working relationship with this gentlemen, he has been great and we’ve worked closely together.  I’ve had the chance to have dinners with him in Ankara and to meet with him; we met together in Chicago, and we’ve really developed a close working relationship.  And it’s a pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you and to visit with you and the other Turkish leaders in Ankara.  It’s been an honor to have that opportunity.  I’ve also had the opportunity to host Foreign Minister Davutoglu and Chief of Defense Ozel for consultations in my office in the Pentagon. 

These are all important discussions.  Important because we are talking about real and substantive issues.  Important because they reflect the high priority that both our nations must place on this relationship…a relationship that I believe has never been more critical to the long-term stability of the world and both of our nations.

As some of you may know, I’ve just returned, as Richard pointed out, from a nine-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, going around the world.  My body doesn’t know where it’s at.  It thinks that it is in California, so I would appreciate it if you did not tell it any different.  So it was a long trip, but the main purpose of it was to explain our new defense strategy that we put together in this country to allies and partners throughout the region. 

In many ways, my appearance here tonight continues that mission.  

It gives me the opportunity to reflect on our historic Alliance with Turkey, and to explain how our Alliance reinforces the new U.S. defense strategy and continues to advance our shared security goals. 

As many of you know, this year marks sixty years since Turkey joined NATO.  

Through that Alliance and through our bilateral military relationship, the United States and Turkey have built strong cooperation and strong connections across our armed services.  Our troops fought alongside each other in the Korean War, our troops helped stem the bloodshed in the Balkans, and they worked together to protect the Libyan people as they stood up to a brutal dictator. 

Just as critically, Turkey continues to make vital contributions in Afghanistan, where more than 1,200 Turkish forces are currently deployed.  We deeply appreciate the determination and resolve of the Turkish people to assist the international military effort, even in the face of the challenges that we have to confront and even in the face of tragedy. 

Just this last March, I was deeply saddened by the news that a helicopter crash in Kabul had killed twelve Turkish soldiers.  I joined the entire international community in expressing our sorrow about the loss and I personally conveyed my condolences to the Minister.  But in the aftermath of that tragedy, Turkey stayed focused on the mission, which tells you a lot about their strength and their willingness to do what needs to be done.  In the lead-up to the Chicago Summit, Turkey played a leading role within NATO to ensure that we affirmed our enduring commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan.

Just as Turkey has shared in the effort to deny al-Qaeda and its militant allies safe haven in Afghanistan, the United States has expressed strong solidarity in Turkey with their fight against the PKK.  In my discussions with Turkish counterparts, I’ve reiterated, obviously, our long-held view that military force alone, while important, cannot solve this problem.  There should be a political process that is involved, as well.  But let me be very clear:  so long as the PKK threatens Turkey and threatens its people, we will continue to provide Turkey with capabilities needed to counter that threat.

Our shared commitment to these efforts reflects our shared aspiration for a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for our children, and our shared values as two democracies.  These common values and these common aspirations remain the cornerstone of our relationship as we seek to deepen our defense partnership, and that will complement our strengthening diplomatic and economic ties, as well. 

All of this occurs as America is at a turning point.  After ten years of war, we have significantly decimated the leadership of al Qaeda, and we continue to do that.  We have sent a very clear message that the United States, when it’s attacked, is not going to let anybody get away with that.  We have brought the long war in Iraq to a responsible end.  The mission there was an Iraq that could govern and secure itself.  It’s difficult, they face barriers, they face problems, but that’s the nature of a democracy.  We’ve put them on that path, and that’s what was important.  Together with the international community, we helped return Libya to the Libyan people, and we are, as the Minister pointed out, on track to complete the transition to full Afghan security responsibility by the end of 2014.   

Yet as some of these threats have receded after ten years of war, we still face a world that contains threats and challenges for the future.  We continue to face violent extremism, in Somalia, in Yemen, in North Africa.  We continue to face the destabilizing behavior of North Korean and Iran, rising powers in the Asia-Pacific region, turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, and the growing challenge of cyber intrusions and cyber attacks, what I have called the battlefield of the future. 

Even as we deal with these challenges, we are also dealing in this country with budget pressures that have required the Defense Department to reduce defense spending by nearly half a trillion dollars over ten years.  To meet all of these challenges, and to meet our diplomatic and fiscal responsibilities, the Department of Defense has put forward a new defense strategy, working with the Service Chiefs, working with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the members of the Joint Chiefs, working with our Under Secretaries, we decided that the best way to approach this was to develop a new defense strategy, not to just simply respond to a budget requirement.  We did that, and we’ve laid out a new defense strategy for the 21st century. 

That strategy recognizes, yes, we’ve got to be smaller and we’ve got to be leaner, but we have to be agile, we have to be flexible, we have to be quickly deployable, and we have to be on the cutting edge of technology for the future.  We recognize that the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East are where the most pressing security challenges lie, and we must increase our focus on these key areas. 

Our strategy recognizes that we must maintain our presence elsewhere in the world – in Europe, in Africa, in Latin America – through innovative rotational deployments that emphasize alliances and emphasize new partnerships, and that we must invest in the future.  This can’t just be about cutting, it has to be about investing in the future – in cyberspace, in unmanned systems, in Special Operations Forces, and in the ability to mobilize quickly, if necessary. 

All of that is part of the strategy that we have developed, and as part of that effort, the United States also wants to encourage nations whose values we share to help advance peace and security in these regions.  We also want to encourage these nations to become stronger and more capable of doing so.  This is not a period where the United States can simply walk around the world, establish more permanent bases and exercise our power in the world.  We have to build up the capabilities of other nations to be able to secure and defend themselves, as well. 

This was a key message that I carried to allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region last week, and that’s one of my messages tonight with respect to Turkey. 

As part of a shared vision for security and stability in the Middle East, the United States strongly supports Turkey’s growing and vital leadership role as a prosperous, democratic nation that is an anchor of security and an engine of growth for the region’s economy. 

Together, Turkey and the United States are working closely to support the historic wave of democratic change that is sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. 

The strong economic ties and strong historical bonds between Turkey and Iraq, for example, positions Turkey to play a positive role in helping Iraq become a source of stability in the region.  It will not be easy, it will be challenging, but the United States and Turkey share a common goal of a democratic, stable, and secure Iraq.  America will continue to work with both Iraq and Turkey to address areas of mutual concern, such as shared borders and counter-terrorism, while respecting Iraq’s constitution and its sovereignty.

Turkey and the United States are also confronting those who are standing in the way of change and seeking to destabilize the region. 

The outrageous violence perpetrated by the Assad regime, the violence that we see every day in Syria is of critical concern to both our nations.  Turkey, to its credit, has been a vital part of international efforts to increase pressure on the Assad regime, having hosted the second meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul last April, among other efforts.  From every angle the situation in Syria is enormously complex and tragic.  There is no silver bullet here.  There is no silver bullet.  But we will continue to work together with Turkey and the international community to bring pressure on Assad to step down, to bring about an orderly political transition in Damascus, and to bring an end to the Syrian people’s suffering. 

Another source of instability has been Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities.  Although our approaches may have differed in the past, the U.S. and Turkey are working closely together to ensure that Iran understands that its quest for nuclear weapons will make it less, not more, secure.  I appreciate Turkish efforts to apply greater pressure on the Iranian regime, including the application of stringent sanctions against the Iranian regime.  We appreciate Turkey’s support for continued diplomatic engagement with Iran – particularly the hosting of the P5+1 talks in Istanbul this past April.  The United States and Turkey share the same policy objective – preventing a nuclear armed Iran.  We are more effective in achieving that objective when the international community stands together as one.  

For that reason and others, I also believe it is important that Turkey and Israel find a way to come together and repair that relationship.  Turkey and Israel are two strong and vibrant democracies, with many shared values and a shared interest in peace and stability in the Middle East.  Turkey and Israel have a long history of defense cooperation that has advanced both Turkish and Israeli security and broader regional stability.  There is much to gain through cooperation and much to lose in the absence.  

It’s time now to put that relationship back on track, to work closely together on common challenges.  And that’s a message I’ve shared in public and with Israeli and Turkish leaders alike. 

Another key element of our defense strategy involves modernizing and strengthening the NATO Alliance.  In the 21st century, our security is no longer defined by the Fulda Gap, as it was when Turkey entered NATO.  Turkey has been playing a critical role in our ongoing efforts to ensure that NATO adapts to meet emerging threats. 

For instance, Turkey is advancing NATO’s ballistic missile defense capabilities by hosting a radar system that we have in Turkey.  The Alliance has assumed operational control over the radar and NATO announced during the Chicago Summit last month that it has established an interim ballistic missile defense capability.  We would not have been able to reach these important milestones were it not for this critical new capacity that Turkey has provided, and the leadership that goes with it.  

Despite fiscal challenges, it is clear that NATO members must continue to invest in future defense capabilities.  Turkey is doing that.  Their defense budget has continued to grow in recent years, and that commitment has set an example for other Allies.  I believe Turkey has an important leadership role to play as we look ahead to a NATO Force in 2020. 

We have much to learn from Turkey and welcome Turkey's leadership in solving some of NATO's biggest security challenges.  We know that potential solutions to many of those challenges lie in expanded defense cooperation between our nations.  

My fervent hope is to see our bilateral relationship – through exercises, through operations, through exchanges – become even more robust for the future.  The United States is committed to bolstering a two-way defense trade between our nations, and to ensuring that Turkey has the cutting edge military capabilities needed to support its growing leadership role – from fifth generation aircraft to electronic warfare. 

Let me close by quoting a statement from President Eisenhower that he made once about the United States and Turkey.  He said, “I can see no reason whatsoever that we shouldn’t be two of the sturdiest partners standing together always for freedom, security, and the pursuit of peace.”

Through the decades, the partnership between the American and Turkish people has grown stronger, and our two nations have been made stronger and more prosperous because of it.  The challenges and threats that we both face in a difficult world today are complex, they are dangerous, and they are destabilizing.  But our two nations understand that in that kind of world, nations that have common values and are not afraid to lead will prevail. 

Let us all commit ourselves to that leadership, to being even stronger and firmer friends between the United States and Turkey for the future, and let us commit ourselves to that dream that my parents and that all parents are about:  the dream of being able to share a better and more secure world for our children.

God bless both of these nations, and God Bless the future of this great Alliance.

Thank you. 

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