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Business Executives for National Security Eisenhower Award for Leadership Dinner
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Washington, DC , Thursday, May 06, 1999

Thank you very much for your kind words. Thank you Admiral Jay Johnson [Chief of Naval Operations] for not being obsequious this evening, [for being] appropriately deferential. [Laughter.] Some of you may wonder what I whispered to Jay as he came down. I said, "I know, the budget supplemental is on the Hill, and you're really putting a plug in here for the Navy." I want to say, Jay, I truly appreciate what you had to say.

I see the distinguished chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee wending his way in [applause]. I'm sorry that you arrived a few minutes late, Senator [John] Warner. I was looking forward to your remarks this evening. [Laughter.] We've had something of a role reversal during the last couple of years where I used to sit side by side with Senator Warner on the Armed Services committee. I enjoyed every moment of it and treasure his friendship and his collegiality. We worked together for 18 years side by side on some of the toughest issues we had to contend with, and I always treasured his counsel. Now I come before his committee mostly on bended knee [laughter] to seek his approval of my comments and my requests. But John, thank you very much for your friendship and your leadership over the years. You've been a great sailor, great Marine, great Secretary of the Navy and a great chairman of the Armed Services committee. We really appreciate your service. [Applause.]

And Jay, when you made the comment about our forces and how much we ask of them, I might say the same thing of you and the other chiefs, several of whom are here. General [Eric] Shinseki [Army Vice Chief of Staff]. General [Ralph] Eberhart [Air Force Vice Chief of Staff] is here representing the Air Force. We have General [Charles] Wald who's been doing a fantastic job briefing the Pentagon each and every day. [Applause.] We have Joe Prueher who is sitting here, soon to become, we hope, Ambassador to China, and who has just been an outstanding public servant and most recently, head of our Pacific Command. Joe, it is a pleasure to see you and Suzanne here tonight. [Applause.] Tom McInerney [President, BENS], we pay great tribute to you.

We have other distinguished guests here this evening. Secretary [of the Army, Louis] Caldera, Secretary [of the Air Force, Whit] Peters, we welcome you here tonight and thank you for the leadership you're showing in the Pentagon. As I look around, I see many of the people who work with me day in and day out. I'm glad to see you for the first time this week [laughter] and look forward to seeing you and working with you again tomorrow. [Laughter.]

I was thinking that when you talk about revolutions [in military and business affairs], Harry Truman once paid a visit to London, and was congratulating the government at that time. He said Labor had just won an astounding victory. He said, "You have something of a revolution here." And George the Fifth replied, "We don't have those over here." [Laughter.]

But when we talk about revolutions, I really could not lead a revolution without the support of BENS. You have really been the backbone behind any revolutionary movement in order to change the way in which we not only do business from a military point of view, but how we organize, how we structure and restructure. There are four key words that we would point to that you have been the leaders on: re-engineer, compete, consolidate and eliminate. And when I say eliminate, I'm talking, as you know, about overhead. I'm talking about infrastructure.

Now that I have Chairman Warner here, I'm talking about BRAC as well. [Laughter and applause.] You have an opportunity next week to assume a great leadership position and to report out a measure that will call for two more rounds of BRAC proceedings so we can save some $20 billion on a cumulative basis and $3.6 on an annual basis. [Applause.] Now, I had a note that I was supposed to whisper this to Senator Warner as we had an aside prior to coming in here, but since you were late, I thought I would take the opportunity [laughter].

Let me begin this evening by putting you a little bit at ease by saying that I am going to try to endeavor to emulate President Eisenhower's theory of a good speech. Once when he was president of Columbia University, he attended a dinner at which every speaker talked at length until the evening seemed to be threatening to become morning. And finally, Ike came to the podium, and he wisely threw away his prepared text, as I may do this evening. He stood up and he said, "Every speech has punctuation. Tonight," he said, "I am the punctuation. The period." And he sat down. [Laughter.] He later confided it was the most impressive and the most popular address he had ever given. [Laughter.] Tonight, I am the period. I hope not to delay the punctuality of your evening for too long, but I'd like to take just a few minutes to say a few things about our military.

I've already talked about John Warner. I had hoped that perhaps Senator [John] McCain might be here since he was last year's recipient and a great friend of mine and also to pay tribute once again to Jay Johnson for the leadership that he has shown as CNO.

I don't think most people are aware of all of our services, what they go through day in and day out. But it really came home to me when I was over in the Gulf this last fall for I guess about the fourth time that year. It was in October. The temperature, combined heat and humidity, was 130 degrees out on the deck of a carrier. That was 20 degrees cooler than it was in August. Nonetheless, you had those young people out there wearing ice collars, jackets just to stay as cool as they possibly could while they were launching 1,000 sorties during the course of that hot month. Not one of them complained. They were out there doing what they were trained to do, they were happy to be there and they felt good about the job they were doing. That's the kind of leadership, Jay, that you and others have provided. [Applause.]

I wanted to again take this opportunity to thank you for the kind of support that you provide. Last year, I stood here and thanked you for the effort you made in helping us get the chemical weapons legislation through. Without you, that would not have happened. And as many of us have talked so often in the past, this is one of the great threats that we face today and tomorrow, the spread of biological and chemical weapons. We have to do everything we can to try to gain control of the spread of these deadly weapons in the future. BENS has been particularly helpful in that regard.

Now, you are turning your guns, so to speak, on the kind of re-engineering that we have to undertake and to bring that "tail to tooth" commission and commitment to reality. So I came here to thank you very much for the support you've given me over the years, and to tell you that we are, in fact, changing our business practices. We are changing our acquisition processes. Thanks to you we are realigning our infrastructure and we are going to bring our military into the 21st Century as far as our business practices. So I wanted to come here tonight to say that directly to you.

Now, I'd like to read a couple of excerpts. No poetry this evening. Jay, when I heard you about to recite poetry, I said to myself, "Do not give up the day job." [Laughter.] You're a great pilot, but I haven't heard you recite anything in blank verse as of yet or in any kind of pentameter. Let me. I can do that. This is civilian control over the military. [Laughter.] There's a payback coming, I understand that. [Laughter.] He will slide into my office either tomorrow or Monday and remind me of what I have to do to make up for this evening. But let me take advantage of it.

Let me share a couple of newspaper excerpts. From the Washington Post: "Our scientific and intellectual activity has gone beyond our wildest dreams." From the San Francisco Examiner: "The continent has shrunk to a span. The oceans are obliterated. London, Paris and New York are neighbors." The New York Times declares the unprecedented economic expansion a virtual "panic of prosperity of Wall Street." It calls the United States the envy of the world.

These sentiments containing what I would say [Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan might call "irrational exuberance" could be an apt description of what we'd find in today's headlines. In fact, they reflected the mood and the outlook at the end of the 19th Century. The bright views of just a hundred years ago were, of course, eclipsed and darkened by much more difficult times during the past century. However, the fact that they were shattered does not mean that the American dream, or that the United States, is consigned to the fate of flotsam on what the poet Auden called "the dangerous flood of history."

I would suggest that these accounts remind us that the world we want is not going to come to us by reliance on any kind of buoyant tide of our current economic comforts. That instead, we have to create the future that we seek through action, and the choices that we make today are going to dictate the security of our world tomorrow. And it's going to determine whether we have an American Century as we've had in the 20th; and whether there will be a second American Century for the 21st.

This will be the lesson of this country's experience that generations before have taught us: that America ignores the world at its peril. That we cannot sit back and rest on comfortable assumptions and satisfactions as though we're sitting in a darkened theater and watch these events unfold on a darkened screen. That the world that we envision -- a world of greater security, freedom, prosperity and greater respect for humanity -- is impossible without America's active engagement and leading role. And to borrow Eisenhower's phrase, we must "steer a steady course between the assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are steering that course today. We are helping to steer this course through very difficult times taking place in Europe once again. In a note once written to Eisenhower [George Marshall said] that "we made great history, great history for all of mankind." That's precisely what we're seeking to do right now in Kosovo.

It's not the same scale, certainly, but it's something that Eisenhower and all of his colleagues had to confront during World War II. In the Balkans, we're seeing a battle rage for the principles that are going to hold sway at the dawn of the next century. Whether we're going to stand up for what is good and right and just or whether we're simply going to stand by and submit to the cruel and brutal vision of a contemporary Kurtz who will take us all into a sort of Heart of Darkness in which justice is simply the bullet in the back of the brain. That's something we simply can't sit by and remain indifferent to. You recall that George Bernard Shaw said the worst thing is not to hate your fellow man, although we've seen that hate take place and take root in Kosovo. The worst thing we can do is to be indifferent to the suffering of our fellow man because indifference is the essence of man's inhumanity to man.

And so, we decided not to be indifferent. We decided to say that we will not stand on the sidelines. We will act collectively with our European allies and we will not allow the situation of women and children being herded into rail cars for deportation, of fathers and brothers seen kneeling with their hands behind their necks, of whole villages turned into ash heaps by the searing flames of hatred, of suffering that we thought modern man was simply incapable of contemplating much less disposed to inflicting. We cannot allow this kind of barbarity to go without challenge and without really directing our energy, our resources, our willpower to reversing it.

That's precisely what we're seeking to do in Kosovo. There are many critics, complaints and judgments being made about this action. But I must tell you, we tried diplomacy. We tried to go to the last step to engage [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic diplomatically. When that was unsuccessful, NATO said we will try to deter him from taking action. We knew that there were 40,000 soldiers in the region, 20,000 inside of Kosovo, 20,000 on the border. We knew that he was planning to undertake this kind of ethnic cleansing. We said we will try to deter you. But failing that, we will then seek to damage, degrade, diminish, indeed, decimate your military capability. That is precisely what is taking place today.

While many people say, "Well, it hasn't been successful," [let me] put this in context. Out of 41, 42 days, we've had five days of clear weather. Think about what is taking place in those five days of clear weather with totally unrestricted air power now being applied. Day by day, we're seeing the decimation of his military capability. We've seen the elimination of 100% of his oil refining capacity. That's gone. We've seen the decimation of up to about 60%, 65% of his ammunition production capability. That, too, is gone. We're taking down his lines of communications. We're taking out his command and control communications. We are day by day systematically degrading Milosevic. And we are going to continue that, we're going to be unrelenting. We are not going to be beguiled by any kind of false promise or any kind of manipulation of our soldiers who were taken and held captive illegally. We're not going to be manipulated by that into thinking that, somehow, this is a gesture of good will. There is no gesture that he could make that could possibly obscure the sulfurous, vile odor coming from that evil that has been inflicted in Kosovo. We are going to continue on the path that we are set on.

I can tell you that I have just come back from Germany, being with the President and with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [General Hugh Shelton]. Our forces are prepared, they are carrying out their missions. They are happy in their duty. They feel good about what they're doing, whether it's providing humanitarian relief to the hundreds of thousands of people who are now displaced throughout Kosovo and all those refugees on the border states; or whether they are carrying out their military mission. They are doing what they are trained to do, and they take great satisfaction in what they're doing.

We have to support them in every way we can. We have to stand behind them and say, "You're doing a great job. You're doing it for the country. You're doing it for NATO, and you're doing it for humanity." So, when we see all of the criticism directed toward this effort, we tend to overlook how good they are, how good a job they're doing, and what's going to continue in the next few weeks or few months, if necessary.

This is something that we have made very clear to Mr. Milosevic. This is going to continue until such time as the key points that have been endorsed by NATO at a very successful NATO summit [are fulfilled]. Those five key points are that the killing must stop, the Serb police forces and the army must come out, the Kosovar refugees must be allowed to go back into a safe and stable environment, there must be an international peacekeeping force which has NATO at its core, and there must be a degree of autonomy that has been taken away from them restored so they can govern themselves in the future. [Applause.]

I know there's a lot of skepticism about whether we could ever bring about a peaceful situation throughout the Balkans. We've all read the history of the Balkans. There are some who declare that the Balkans are simply trapped in an unending cycle of inevitable conflict. But I would point to the people and to a past that defy simple stereotyping. Witness the open hearts and the open homes of the people who are now taking in these impoverished refugees in Albania, one of the poorest countries in the world, certainly one of the poorest in Europe. Yet, they are opening their homes and their hearts to those refugees flooding in.

You witness the enduring honor of the people of Bulgaria who against overwhelming odds sheltered Jewish countrymen from the Holocaust. You can even point to, in the past, the brave stand of the Serbian people under the withering assault of Hitler's blitzkrieg. It was a courageous moment in history that their current leaders have twisted, with breathtaking hypocrisy, to blind people to the horrors now being committed in their nation's name.

We simply should not resign ourselves to say that it cannot by done. We believe that every effort must be made to bring peace and stability and prosperity to that troubled region just as we've done through Western Europe after the end of World War II, and to Eastern Europe and Central Europe after the Cold War. We can bring the same peace and stability to the entire Balkan region if we have the will and the commitment to do so. [Applause.]

I was thinking of Alistair Cooke, one of my favorite authors. And I go back to the book that he wrote called America. In one of the chapters, he compared the United States to Rome, a comparison has been made by many over the years. He said, "America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism, the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism. And the race is on between its vitality and its decadence."

When I look out in this room, when I see all of the people who have made a contribution to the military, to public service, to their country, and when I go out in the field and when I visit our soldiers, when Janet is with me -- and I regret that she couldn't be here tonight – and we go out and we see the young people of this country and their idealism, their professionalism, their patriotism, their courage and their commitment to the ideals which have made this country the great country that it is, the best in the world, then I see that idealism being manifested. And it overwhelms any sense of the decadence that Alistair Cooke talked about.

"We have a great country," he said, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, "and we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it." I am here tonight to accept this tremendous award and I am honored by the fact that you would even consider me worthy of it. But I am here to say that I look out into this room and I see all the talent in this room and all the dedication, and I see what is manifested throughout our military. I can tell you, we not only care to keep it, we are going to keep it, thanks to you and everyone else.

Thank you. [Applause.]