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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in Djibouti

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
December 13, 2011

             MR.     :  Sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines, I just wanted you to have the privilege of having a true leader amongst us visiting us here at Camp Lemonier - a leader who has dedicated his life to the service of our country and throughout his entire life as an Army intelligence officer, as a congressman of the great state of California, as the chief of staff of the White House, and most recently as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  

            So please join me this morning in welcoming the secretary of defense, the 23rd, the Honorable Leon Panetta.   

            (Cheers, applause.) 

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Thank you very much.  Djibouti.  Djibouti.  

            We wanted to take time to come out and have a chance to visit with troops.  This is the holiday season.  And I wanted to obviously say to all of you the best of the holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.  I understand really how difficult it is.  These are difficult times when you're away from your family, away from your loved ones, and away from just all of the trimmings that makes this the holiday season. 

            And yet I want you to know how thankful we are for your service and for your sacrifice and for what you do for our country.  I can't tell you how proud I am as secretary of defense to be able to visit with you, to see the sacrifices that are made, the dedication that is involved and the service and, again, just to thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.  

            Service to our country is something that I deeply believe in.  Throughout the time that I served in government, I really believe that it's important to give back to the country.  

            I'm, as you know, the son of Italian immigrants.  And my parents came to America, like millions of other immigrants, with no money in their pockets, no skills, no language ability, but just a great deal of hope in the dream that was America.  I used to ask my father, why did you travel all of that distance to come to a strange country?  My father said the reason he did it is because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life.  I think that's the American dream and that's what all of us want.  And that's why it's important to give back to the country in order to make sure that our children have a better life, and that's what you're doing.  

            You've done everything that your nation has asked you to do.  And the result is that in making this trip it really is a time when I can see, after 10 years of war, that progress is being made, that we're beginning to move in the right direction.  Obviously, there are challenges there and there's more to be done.  The fact is we're making some progresses after 10 years of war, after 10 years of losing a lot of lives and spilling a lot of blood.  

            Just looking at terrorism - Djibouti is the central location for continuing the effort against terrorism, but we have made a hell of a lot of progress - (inaudible) - terrorism.  We've taken down bin Laden.  We've taken down Awlaki.  

            We have helped make this region safer, but more importantly we have made the world safer by virtue of our efforts to decimate al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is what started this war and we have made a commitment that we are going to track these guys wherever they go and make sure they have no place to hide, and that's what the effort here is all about - to make sure that they have no place to hide, whether it's Yemen or it's Somalia or anyplace else.  And for that reason, I'm very grateful for this little operation out here.  This is very important to that effort and we are making tremendous progress in the effort to make sure that al Qaeda never again has the opportunity or the capacity to be able to attack our country.  

            From there I'm going to go to Iraq, and there we are bringing that mission to an end after a tremendous amount of sacrifice, a lot of lives lost, but the mission there was to establish an Iraq that could govern and secure itself.  And we've been able to do that.  Reality is that Iraq has developed better security, has an army that can respond to threats.  It doesn't mean that it's going to be easy.  It doesn't mean that it isn't going to be challenging.  They're going to face challenges in terrorism and face challenges from economic and social divisions.  They're going to face challenges just in democracy itself and trying to make it work.  But what we have done is given them the opportunity to be able to succeed and that's what it's been all about. 

            And so we won't - we will when I go to Iraq and we encase the colors there, it will be an indication of a new chapter that we're establishing there, a new chapter for them to be able to move forward, to govern themselves, and we will have a long-term relationship with them.  We'll be there.  We'll be providing assistance.  We'll be providing help into the future.  But now Iraq has the opportunity and it's in their hands hopefully to succeed.  

            We've done everything we can to try to try to push this -  (inaudible) -  in the right direction and, again, all of us need to be proud of the sacrifices that were made.  Those sacrifices - 4,500 lives that were lost, 35,000 who were wounded - those were not in vain.  We have in fact achieved the mission that we were after in Iraq.  And now the hope is that they can move in the right direction.  

            In Afghanistan, things are moving in the right direction there as well.  Thanks to General Allen, thanks to Ambassador Crocker that established great relationships there, our troops are moving ahead.  They've weakened the Taliban.  We've created better security.  The Afghan army is out there now involved in operations.  We've now basically transitioned areas in Afghanistan, over 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan has now transitioned to Afghan government and Afghan security.  

            More needs to be done.  It's going to be challenging over these next few years as we try to arrive at a point at the end of 2014 where we can begin to transition that effort to the Afghans.  But we can do that thanks to their leadership and thanks to the sacrifice of our troops, of men and women like you that have dedicated their lives to doing this right.  

            And, lastly, I'll have a chance to go to Libya.  And in Libya, you know, it's a reflection of the changes - dramatic changes that are taking place in this part of the world, a combination of the will of the Libyan people plus the work of NATO.  Working together with our NATO allies, we were able to give the Libyan people their country back, get rid of Gadhafi, and give them a chance mostly to establish again the institutions of democracy in the future.  

            So, as you look to the world and this part of the world, because of sacrifices and service of our men and women in uniform, the reality is we've been able to move in the right direction after 10 years of war because of you.  And for that reason I thank you.  We thank you for your service, for your dedication, for being willing to be out here in the middle of nowhere, to be able to serve the United States of America and be able to give our kids that better life that I talked about.  

            This is a challenging time.  As all of you know, I'm facing the challenge of having to reduce the defense budget by $450 billion.  That's the number that Congress has.  And it's going to be a challenge, but at the same time I'm working with the service chiefs and I'm working with the under secretary and working with some of the top people at the Pentagon to make sure that we do this in a way that gives us the opportunity to establish a strong defense for the future. 

            I'm guided by four guidelines.  Number one, we are going to maintain the best defense in the world.  You are part of the strongest military force in the history of the world.  And I'm going to make damn sure that we protect the best military, that America has the best military for the future.  

            Secondly, I want to make sure that we don't hollow out the force.  We've made some cuts in the past - generally those cuts have been made across the board.  What happened in the past is we weakened areas of defense across the board and it hollowed out the force.  Every area was cut back a certain percentage and, frankly, it was the wrong way to do it.  I'm not going to repeat those mistakes.  We are not going to hollow out the force.  That means that we're going to do it in a balanced way, look at all areas - look at all areas in order to try to achieve the savings necessary to get this done.  But as we do, I'm going to make sure that we are dedicating ourselves to what will be an agile, effective and deployable force that can deal with the threats in the world. 

            And lastly, I try to maintain faith for all of you.  We are not going to break faith with the men and women who've served this country.  You've been promised - (inaudible) - you deployed time and time again and I'm going to make sure that we stand by the promises that have been made to all of you.  So for those of you that are worried about retirement benefits, let me make clear to you:  Anything done in that area - what we'll probably do is establish a commission to look at retirement, but we have made clear that we will grandfather all of those who are in the service now, that you receive the benefits that have been promised to you. Understand that that's what we're going to do.  

            In addition to that, we'll protect, obviously, all of your - the basic benefits for your families and for you and there will be areas we'll try to achieve some savings, but I've got to tell you, we will maintain faith with those of you that serve in our service.  

            So this is a challenging time.  It's a challenging time for America.  It's a challenging time for the world.  It's a challenging time for all of you.  You know, this is a time when it's so important that you remember - you remember the dream that my parents were all about and what we're all about.  This is to try to make sure that our country is safe and to make sure that our kids have that better life.  

            I often tell the story of the rabbi and the priest who decided to get to know each other a little better so one evening they went to a boxing match.  And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross.  And the rabbi looks at the priest and says, what does that mean?  The priest says, it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight.  (Laughter.)  

            (Inaudible) – we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in America.  It doesn't mean a damn thing if we're not willing to fight for it.  By virtue of your presence, by virtue of your dedication, by virtue of your commitment, by virtue of what you do every day, you've made sure that you're willing to fight - fight to keep our country safe, fight for a better America, fight for that American dream and fight to make sure that ultimately you achieve the peace that all of us hope for.  

            God bless you.  God bless America.  And happy holidays to all of you.  Thank you very much.  

            (Applause.) 

            I want to give each of you this coin and wish you the best of holidays and - (inaudible) - up here, so if you'll come through.  These coins aren't worth a hell of a lot of money.  (Laughter.)  But, you know, maybe you can pass them off to the - (inaudible).  (Laughter.)