SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Thank you, guys. Thank you. All right. Thank you very much, sergeant. Thanks to all of you for what you do.
This is my first trip as secretary of defense, and I wanted to take my first trip to the war zones. So I've been to Afghanistan and now here in Iraq. And I wanted the chance to meet with the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for our country.
You're the ones who I'm responsible for. You're the ones I care about. You're the ones that I want to make sure are protected, not only for yourselves but for your families. And so that's the reason I wanted to come out here and talk to you directly.
First and foremost -- and it's something I used to do as director of the CIA when I met with people in our stations around the world. As you know, we had a big presence here, we had a big presence in Afghanistan, but throughout the world.
First and foremost I want to express my deepest thanks for what you do. Thanks for your service. Thanks for your sacrifice. You're away from family. You're away from those you love. And you're here fighting a war and doing a hell of a job.
And thank you for giving something back to this country, which is what public service is all about. There is no greater public service than men and women in uniform who fight on behalf of this country. I'm a big believer in public service. I think it's something that every American has the responsibility to give something back to the nation that has done so much for us.
I'm the son of Italian immigrants. Both my parents came from Italy in the early '30s, and like millions of other immigrants, had very little money in their pocket, very little language ability, very few skills, but came a long way to this country to hopefully find some degree of opportunity.
And I used to often ask my parents, why would you travel all of that distance to come to the United States? They came from a poor area of Italy but at the same time they had the comfort of family. So why would you suddenly break away and leave all of that to travel all those miles to come to a strange country and not know, you know, really what was going to happen here?
And my father said, the reason we did it is because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life. And I think that's the American dream. That's what my wife and I want for our three sons and for our grandchildren. It's what you'll want for your children, and hopefully what your children will want for their children, which is to give our kids a better life.
And that's what the United States of America is all about. It's what our forefathers cared about. It's what the pioneers cared about. It's what the immigrants cared about, which is the need to make sure that we give our kids a better life. And what you are fighting for here -- what you are fighting for here is to make sure that our children have a safer, better life back in America. And you're doing that. And I appreciate what you're doing.
The first time I came to Iraq was, you know, about five years ago as a member of the Iraq Study Group. And we came here and this place was in turmoil. And as a result of the great sacrifice and work of the United States military, I have to tell you that this country is on a much better path. You've been able to provide greater security here. This nation has been able to develop itself as a democracy in this part of the world.
We have a chance to put in place a nation that is going to be extremely important to this region as a model for democratic government but, more importantly, as a symbol of the fact that when you fight for your freedom, when you fight for your independence, that that becomes a great signal to the rest of this region that, in fact, this entire area can move in the right direction towards providing better rights, better dignity, better opportunity for their people.
So you're all responsible for making that happen. And it's for that reason that I thank you. There's more work to be done. We've got to, you know, get this put in place so we can hopefully make sure that all of the sacrifices taking place by a lot of your buddies and a lot of people that we care about -- all of that sacrifice is not lost. And it won't be.
This country, Iraq, can be a symbol of the great sacrifice that was involved not only by the United States but by the Iraqis themselves. And that's something all of you are going to remember wherever you go, that you played a role in that. When you get back home -- whatever you decide to do when you get back home, you will always remember the fact that what you did here made a real difference.
And, again, that's what public service is all about. It's about making a difference. And I've got to tell you that the test in life -- the test in life is whether or not people look to you and say, that person made a difference. And I can look at every one of you and say each of you, in your own way, has made a difference, and that's worth a lot when you're able to go back home, is to know that you did make a difference.
So, again, I want to thank you. I also want to say to you that one of my great responsibilities is to make sure that I protect those who protect America. And I want you to know that as you've fought here, I intend to fight in Washington to make sure that you're protected, that, you know, you receive the best training, the best equipment, that you receive the best support in terms of the benefits that have been promised to you, and that, more importantly, we also protect your families.
This is about making sure that as you've had to fight here, we have remembered that it was the support of your families that counted for a hell of a lot. And I know -- I know how important that is. When you're away from family, when you're away from those you love, the one thing you want to make damn sure of is that they're taken care of.
And I guess one of the things I want to pledge to you is that as the new secretary of defense, I view one of my greatest responsibilities is to make sure I'm doing every damn thing to protect your families and to protect you for what you've done.
So, again, I thank you a great deal. America thanks you for what you've done. And I just want to say, God bless you for the service that you've provided. But more importantly, may you all be brought home safely from this responsibility.
Thanks again for everything, and I'm happy to answer your questions, guys.
Q: Good morning, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. PANETTA: Good morning.
Q: I'm Sergeant Jamison. I'm with -- excuse me -- 5-4 Cav [Cavalry], 1st ID [Infantry Division]. This is my second deployment to Iraq, and one of the biggest differences that I've noticed so far is the influence of Iran as far as weapons.
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah.
Q: And I'd like to know what actions you're planning on taking to stop weapons from crossing from Iran into Iraq and being used against Americans.
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah. We're very concerned about Iran and weapons they're providing to extremists here in Iraq. And the reality is that we've seen the results of that. In June we lost a hell of a lot of Americans as a result of those attacks.
And we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen. My first responsibility as secretary of defense, the first responsibility of your commanders, is to make damn sure that we do everything necessary to protect you. And we are going to do that.
Now, the effort here obviously has to be to push the Iraqis to take on the responsibility of going after some of these Shia groups, going after those that would use those kinds of weapons, going after those weapons caches to make sure that we can try to hit them before they're put into a capability that can go out there and take lives.
So, number one, we'll put pressure on the Iraqis to go after those Shia. And they're beginning to do that. We've gotten -- we've had a number of joint operations that are going on with them.
Secondly, to do what we have to do unilaterally to be able to go after those threats as well, and we're doing that.
And, thirdly, to bring pressure on Iran to not engage in this kind of behavior, because, you know, very frankly, they need to know that our first responsibility is to protect those that are defending our country, and that is something we are going to do.
So I want to assure you that this is not something we're just going to walk away from. We're going to take this on straight on.
Q: Honorable Panetta, quick question. Specialist Henry, Fort Riley, Kansas. Amanda, I love you. (Laughter.)
Sir, quick question. We have helped out a tremendous amount of Iraqis here -- a tremendous amount. Are their leaders, are they ready to take over and help out their people?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think the question for a long time, even when we -- as I said, when I came here with the Iraq Study Group, Congress had asked the Iraq Study Group to take a look at what was going on in Iraq and determine whether this country was on the right course or not.
And so we came here, spent a lot of time talking not only to the troops and commanders but talking to the leadership of this country as to where we're at. And there were a lot of questions whether or not, you know, the leadership was there to put this country in the right place and try to direct it in the right direction.
And I have to tell you that the leadership has developed here. I think, you know, whether you're talking to Shia or whether you're talking to Sunnis, whether you're talking to Kurds, that there's a sense of nationalism that is extremely important. I think for any country, the first thing you've got to have is a sense that your country is the most important thing.
And I really do get that sense, even though, I mean, the Iranians try to influence what goes on here. Others try to influence what goes on here. The bottom line is that the Iraqis really do want a country of their own, and that's first and foremost.
Secondly, you know, they have taken steps to establish a parliament, establish a government that is democratic. They've had elections here. They've got someone, you know, who is serving as prime minister. We may or may not agree with everything they do. Sometimes it's difficult as they try to work their way through the issues.
But the nature of a democracy -- as we all know in the United States, the nature of a democracy is you've got to kind of fight your way through these issues. There are people that are going to disagree. There are people that are going to have different views. That's got to play out. And that's what's happening here.
And, very frankly, sometimes it can be frustrating. I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision, you know, do they want us to stay; don't they want us to stay? But, you know, they want to have -- you know, get a minister of defense or don't they want to get a minister of defense? But, damn it, make a decision.
So it gets frustrating, but that's the nature of democracy. It is that -- you know, it's that kind of debate, that kind of dialogue goes on. But it's healthy. You know, when you stand back, you look at other countries and what they're going through, the fact that they're having that here is -- you know, it's something that is reassuring that we've been able to point them in the right direction.
And, thirdly, frankly, you know, countries do depend on resources. This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources. And that means that, you know, this is probably a good bet that they're going to be able to develop their economy and have the resources to be able to secure themselves and make sure that they protect, you know, their people.
So I think there's a lot of hope here that this is in the right direction. And, the bottom line is the reason there's hope here is because of you guys, OK? I mean, take that home because, you know, all of the sacrifices, everything you've done, if you can point to the fact that this country is now on a path towards independence, towards democracy, towards being able to be a nation that can stand on its own feet and do the right things in the future, damn it, that's a hell of an accomplishment.
OK, right here and then back there.
Q: Good morning, sir. My name is Specialist Fleischner. I'm a medic with 5-4 Cav., 2nd Brigade, 1st ID.
As we transition from combat force in both theaters of operations under garrison operations, do we have a plan to maintain a defensive posture in the Middle East, as we have in Korea and Europe in the past?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think it's pretty clear that as we make this transition -- and, you know, we're now in the process -- one of my jobs, frankly, as the secretary of defense -- I said, you know, there's kind of three or four key jobs for me.
Number one, frankly, is to defeat al-Qaeda. I'm interested in making sure that al-Qaeda never represents a threat to the United States of America. The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11, the United States got attacked and 3,000 Americans, and 3,000 not just Americans but 3,000 human beings got killed -- innocent human beings got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we've been fighting them, you know, as a result of that. *
[Sic: Following the troop talk Secretary Panetta added the following, in response to a reporter’s question, regarding the reason for troop presence in Iraq and 9/11: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion, or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with Al Qaeda here.”]
And, you know, one of my goals -- I mean, one of the proudest moments I've had in 40 years, the time I've been in Washington -- one of the proudest moments I've had is the ability to put together a plan -- once we got the intelligence on where we thought bin Laden was located, to put together the plan, working with special forces, to put together the plan to go after bin Laden and to get that son of a bitch.
It's one of the best things we were able to accomplish because it made very clear to the world that nobody attacks this country and gets away with it. Nobody attacks this country and gets away with it.
But, having said that, al-Qaeda is still out there. We see it here in Iraq. We see it in Yemen. We see it in Somalia. You know, they continue to remain a force that will try to attack our country, and so we've got to continue the job of going after them. We've impacted on them. We've undermined them. And I think we've just got to continue to pressure them to make sure that we end that threat once and for all. That's one challenge.
Secondly, I'm trying to -- you know, obviously the president wants to accomplish this, and as secretary of defense my responsibility is to see that it's done right, which is to take these three conflicts we're involved in and try to bring them to a -- be able to prevail in these conflicts and bring them to a responsible end.
And that's what's going on here in Iraq. Thanks to your response -- everything that's been done by our military, I think we're on the path to gradually bringing it to a responsible end. But to do that, obviously, you know, we need to make sure that the security of this country is there and that al-Qaeda never comes back and represents a threat. I mean, the purpose of what we're doing in Iraq is to ensure that this never becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda.
The same thing is true for Afghanistan. One thing we don't want to do as we draw down is to, in any way, allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven again from which al-Qaeda can conduct attacks on our homeland.
So it's achieving that degree of stability there that makes clear that that will never happen. To do that in Afghanistan, you know, as we bring it down, we've got to make sure that we can transition to Afghan military and police, and that they can take responsibility.
But we're always going to have to play a role to try to ensure that they have the support they need in order to accomplish that. So it's an enduring presence that we will have there, not just now but for -- you know, for a long period of time here, to make sure that we keep this on the right path.
For this region -- you know, we're involved in Libya. The political goal there is obviously to take down Gadhafi, and hopefully we can get that done as well. This is a region of the world where we've had a hell of a lot of turmoil in the last year. Almost everywhere you look there's been something going on. And our responsibility is to ensure that whatever changes are taking place hopefully are headed in the right direction.
So there's no question we're going to have to maintain a presence. There's no question that we're going to have to play a role in providing that direction. There's no question that, you know, as these crises develop, that the United States will have to continue to play a significant role working with you guys, working with our special forces, working with the other elements of the military to ensure that -- you know, that we're able to direct this in the right course.
So, I think the answer to your question is, we're going to be around for a hell of a long time, making sure that the world goes right.
Q: Sir, I'm Sergeant Young, infantryman, 116 Cav. My question is, with the conflicts going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, over the last 10 years the National Guard has really been transformed into a really capable, very readily able force. With the budget drawbacks and the drawdown here overseas, what is the long-term plan for National Guard and Reserve soldiers and those units?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, that's an important question because I really do think that the Reserve and National Guard have really come to great -- not only developed great capabilities but in terms of the military force, they really complement what we're trying to do.
When we go to a battle zone, when we go to war, to be able to have the Reserve and National Guard be able to come in and play the role that they've been playing, it's been, I think, very healthy for our military force; it's been very healthy for our national defense. And I don't want to lose that capability. I think it's damn good, and it's one that we have to continue to emphasize as we move on.
And, frankly, I think that -- the reality is that, you know, as we go into a period where, you know, there will be some drawdown, there will be some budget constrictions, the fact is, for us to remain a strong military force in the world is going to demand that we be able to have those reserves and National Guard there so that we can respond to crises when they occur.
I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose that experience. And I don't want to lose that kind of backup because I think it's essential to our ability to maintain our national defense. So, you know, I've made that clear up on Capitol Hill and I'm going to continue to make it clear that that's an aspect of our national defense that always has to play an important role.
And you know what? It keeps the responsibility to protect our country something that every community in the nation has to share in. That's damn good. Everybody has got to feel like they have some responsibility to serve, and that helps fulfill that.
Q: Good morning, sir, and thank you for coming.
SEC. PANETTA: Good morning.
Q: I'm Sergeant Lockwood, HSC [Headquarters and Support Company], HHBN [Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion], 25th ID.
With what the media has shown us, our role in NATO is very, very large. I'm wondering, at what point in time do we draw the line and say we cannot lead everything; we need to take care of ourselves prior to taking care of everybody else?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, as you may know, my predecessor, Secretary Gates, went to NATO and made very clear that, you know, they have a responsibility to begin to put up both the financing and the defense forces needed to play a role in NATO.
I do believe, by the way -- I mean, I think, you know, for the United States -- look, we are the best equipped, we're the best trained, we are the strongest military force on the face of the earth, OK? That's important, and I want to maintain that as secretary of defense.
But as we confront challenges in the world, we're also going to have to develop partnerships with others. They're going to have to play a role too. It can't just be the United States. We've got to be able to develop partners. That's what NATO is all about. That's what other security relationships are all about.
And the fact is, NATO is playing a role in Libya. NATO is playing a role with regards to other areas as well. I mean, and we're partners with them. But the reality is that, you know, we're the big boy on the block, you know. We bring the best equipment; we bring the best training; we bring the best force to bear.
Others, you know, are operating but they're operating on a short leash. A lot of them are going through budget constrictions. I mean, the problem right now, frankly, in Libya is that, you know, within the next 90 days, a lot of these other countries could be exhausted in terms of their capabilities, and so the United States, you know, is going to be looked at to help fill the gap.
They have got to -- they've got to -- they've got to assume their responsibility in the world as well, and for them to assume that that responsibility means that they're going to have to -- you know, they're going to have to make commitments, they're going to have to develop their defense capabilities, they're going to have to invest in that kind of partnership as well. We can't be the ones that carry the financial burden in all of these situations. Others have got to do it as well.
I'm a believer in partnerships, but when you talk about partnerships, damn it, you've got to be partners. And that means you've got to be able to put up, you know, an equivalent amount of capability so that you can really be partners when we have to go to war.
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, sir, we have one more question, please.
SEC. PANETTA: One more question. Yes?
Q: Yes, sir, Staff Sergeant Boldinghouse from the 25th ID band. I've just got a quick question.
With the deadline for us taking out coming up pretty soon, what event is it we're looking for, or how are we going to know that we’ve accomplished our goals before we take out of here?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, the one thing that will tell you whether all of the sacrifice and all of those who, you know, were killed in battle, all of the work that you've done is paying off is when there is a country here that is able to defend, secure and govern itself in a responsible way. That's going to be the key.
And so, when Iraq is able to, you know, fully engage as a country in the world, take its place as a member of the family of nations, and do it in a way that is democratic, that respects human values, and that respects the same kind of principles that we do -- if they can do that, then all of you can claim a big victory.
Now, it's not going to happen today. It's not going to happen tomorrow. It's going to take some time for this to play out. But you have laid the groundwork for that to happen here in Iraq. And as I said, all of you can go home with your heads hanging tall and high because you've done a hell of a job here. And I think everybody recognizes that.
What you've done here is you have invested in the future peace of the world, and anytime we can do that we've done our job, OK?
Thanks very much to all of you. I really appreciate it. (Applause.)