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Roundtable with Secretary Panetta in Turkey

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
December 17, 2011

                 SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Let me begin with some brief comments and then we'll open it up to questions. 

                First I'd like to extend my very best wishes to Prime Minister Erdogan for a continued recovery from his recent surgery and extend the regards of the U.S. government, the American people and best wishes to him for a quick recovery. 

                I'm truly delighted to be here in Turkey.  Turkey is a key NATO ally and a very critical security partner for the United States. 

                This is -- this is my first visit to the country as secretary of defense, but as many of you know, I've had the opportunity to visit here in my previous capacities.  And every time I've had the opportunity to be here, I've always felt that we were working with a very close partner and ally on whatever issues that I was dealing with at the time.  

                I've been able to engage in this trip in a very comprehensive set of discussions with Turkish leaders, including President Gul, Minister of Defense Yilmaz and the chief of national defense, just came from a meeting with the CHOD. 

                We've reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Turkish alliance in confronting some of the most pressing security challenges in the region and across the world, including supporting the democratic changes that are sweeping this region, confronting the oppressive Assad regime and encouraging change there as well and in equipping and modernizing the NATO alliance in order to deal with emerging threats. 

                I'd like to once again commend Turkey for its cooperation in hosting the NATO missile defense radar and for its significant contributions to ISAF in Afghanistan.  I had the opportunity to be in Afghanistan, in Kabul.  And actually, the Turkish troops are located there in the capital of Afghanistan, doing a great job in providing security at the capital.  And we really thank Turkey for their participation in the ISAF effort in Afghanistan.  My belief, as I mentioned, having just been to Afghanistan, is that the war effort there has reached an important turning point.  And Turkey has been a leading force in helping to drive this success. 

                Just as Turkey has shared in our determination to deny al-Qaida and its militant allies safe haven in Afghanistan, I'd also like to express the strong solidarity of the United States with Turkey in the fight against the terrorist PKK. 

                In my discussions here in Ankara, I made very clear that the United States will continue to assist Turkey in confronting this threat.  We talked about the efforts that we've made to confront terrorism, the successes we've had.  And I indicated the solidarity we have with Turkey in confronting the terrorists that they have here in this country as well. 

                And speaking of that, I also mentioned to them that, having just come from Iraq and the ceremonies that brought that war to an end, that I assured them that we would have a long-term relationship with Iraq and that we would continue to work with Iraq to make sure that that country takes steps to deal with the PKK on that side of the border as well. 

                I also made clear that in this time of sweeping change in the region, it's important for Turkey to have strong relationships with those who share an interest in regional security and stability, including Israel.  I believe that it is in Turkey's interest and in Israel's interest for the two to move forward to repair their leadership in order to deal with the many difficult issues that we confront in this region. 

                Earlier today, as many of you know, I had the honor of laying a wreath at the tomb of Ataturk, which I've had the opportunity to visit as well on previous trips to Turkey. 

                The modern and vibrant democracy that Turkey has become I think is a testament to the vision and to the strength of the Turkish people.  This country has a very important role to play as a leader in this region and in the world, and Turkish people should know that they have a committed friend and a committed ally in the United States. 

                Thank you. 

                STAFF:  The secretary will now take questions.  The Associated Press. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary –Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.  You're going to be traveling to Libya tomorrow.  I was wondering if I could ask you what your assessment is of the situation there, particularly considering so far their inability to coalesce the militias and particularly the recent violence and -- (off mic) -- assassination attempts against the --[off mic] -- army can you tell us, are there concerns that they haven't been able to really take hold of -- (off mic)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, obviously, the purpose of my trip to Libya is to have an opportunity of looking at that situation up close, but to also pay tribute to the Libyan people for what they did in bringing Gadhafi down and trying to establish a democratic government for the future. 

                Obviously, I'll have a better chance to get a sense of what progress and what difficulties they're confronting.  But kind of standing back, it seems to me that they are working through some very difficult issues to try to bring that country together. 

                It's not going to be easy.  This is not -- this is not -- this is not a country that has a tradition of democratic institutions and representative government.  This is going -- this is going to take some work.  

                But the indications I have are that they are making progress, trying to bring tribes together, trying to bring the country together in order to establish the institutions that must be put in place so that the Libyan people will have the opportunity to have elections, to have representative government, to have institution of democracy put in place.  That certainly is their goal.  That's our goal.  And working with them, I think it's the goal of other countries in the international community in working with them as well. 

                So, yes, -- there are going to be challenges here.  There are going to be difficulties.  But I think any country like Libya that was able to do what they did and show the courage that they did in making the changes that took place there, I'm confident that ultimately they're going to be able to succeed in putting a democracy together in Libya. 

                STAFF (?):  (Off mic.) 

                Q:  (Inaudible) – you already mentioned Israel, how much of a complicated factor -- (inaudible)?  And if I may add to that, you were recently quoted in the Turkish media extensively saying that a strike against Iran -- whatever -- would not be very helpful at this stage.  Do you still stand by that? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  First -- first, with regards to the relationship between Turkey and Israel, I think -- I think it's important for both countries to try to do what they can to establish that, that relationship is -- they've had a strong relationship in the past, and I think it's helped both countries in dealing with the issues in this region.  And at a time when there are great changes going on, at a time when there are great challenges, I think it behooves both countries to try to re-establish that relationship.  I urge both to do that, and I'm confident that both Israel and Turkey recognize the importance of, hopefully, re-establishing those relations. 

                I think that, you know, it's important to recognize what the consequences would be of any country’s military action. As the secretary of defense,  I have a responsibility, if the president directs me, to take military action, but I also have a responsibility to point out the consequences of what military action involves.  That doesn't represent a weakness I think that represents a strength. 

                Q:  Mr. Panetta, Turkey wants armed drones.  The Pentagon has supported that, but the Congress has some skepticism about members of Congress.  Did you discuss this issue with Turkish officials today?  And what's your message to Congress about the sale of armed drones to Turkey ? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  You know, we are in discussions with Turkey. 

                As you know, we do provide some technology to assist them in their efforts against the PKK.  And we're prepared to discuss further efforts to try to improve the technology and those capabilities.  And as always, obviously, in whatever discussions we have, we try to also share that information with Congress, so that they understand why it's important to take those steps. 

                So the answer to your question is that we continue to explore other steps that can be taken to assist Turkey in the effort to deal with the PKK. 

                MR.     :  Mr. Secretary -- (off mic). 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, there has been quite differences with regard to a push to Iran, between Turkey and United States in the past.  And recently, we've seen some convergence of the -- (off mic) -- when we saw the report from Iran threatening Turkey because the Turkish government decided to hold the part of the radar installation in the eastern part of the country.  Not only that, but also with regard to position that this government should -- on Syria, coming very hard on the Syrian government and pushing for the change, and the Iranians weren't happy with that.  And how is your assessment of the current -- (off mic) -- of the United States government, Turkish government, with regard to Iran issues, including the Iraq, Syria, and nuclear arms program -- Iran's program ? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I -- as I indicated to the leaders that I met with, I have tremendous respect for the leadership of Turkey on these issues. 

                I think they've exercised very responsible leadership in dealing with the issues that are taking place in the Middle East and in dealing with issues related to Iran and to -- and to Syria as well as other areas.  And for that reason, I think it is important for the United States and Turkey to continue to work together in a cooperative relationship in order to deal with these issues. 

                We're in a period of tremendous change going out -- going on throughout obviously the Middle East, and we've seen a number of changes.  I think Turkey and the United States share the goal that hopefully, these changes can produce positive results in the future for the people and the nations that have gone through this turmoil. 

                This is -- I think this represents a time of tremendous opportunity to be able to move that region forward in terms of the rights of people and the opportunities for people in that region, and I think Turkey recognizes that opportunity. 

                Iran -- I think we have urged Iran to join the family of nations, not to isolate itself from the rest of the world.  And I think Turkey agrees that we should do everything possible to urge Iran to be a member of the family of nations as opposed to trying to undermine the progress that is -- that is being made in this region. 

                STAFF:  Next question. 

                Q:  Sir, what concrete measures, if any, did U.S.-Turkish leadership agree to in terms of ending the Assad regime? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  We didn't -- we did not talk about specific steps other than to indicate that it's important that we continue to bring pressure on the Assad regime so that Assad steps down and the people of Syria are given the opportunity to be able to establish the institutions of government that will give them greater rights and opportunities.  

                We've seen what happened -- what's happened elsewhere, and I believe that, you know, at some point it's going to happen in Syria as well.  But in order for that to happen, I think it's important not only for Turkey and the United States but the international community to continue to bring pressure on Syria, on the Assad regime to do the right thing.  

                And Turkey has exercised great leadership in making clear what steps should be taken, and we've encouraged that, and we will continue to work with Turkey and the international community to try to get Assad to do the right thing. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, I would like to ask a follow-up -- (inaudible) -- Turkey is -- hearing – the Russians,… to press Iranians, -- (inaudible) with regard to forward-base trainers  --- (inaudible) -- next year -- (inaudible) -- includes -- (inaudible). 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah.  No, I -- Turkey is a longtime member of NATO. 

                And Turkey, I believe, has been a very effective partner in NATO, in all of the missions that have been involved with NATO. 

                And the purpose of this defense system is to protect the NATO countries from attack.  That's the main mission here.  That's the main purpose here.  And I think Turkey recognizes that it is important for this country to be a part of that defense shield.  And you know, there are going to be countries that may or may not object to those steps that are being taken.  But these steps are being taken in defense of NATO.  And it is for that reason that I think they're taking the right steps, and it's for that reason that I think that ultimately, other countries, whether they like it or don't like it, are going to have to ultimately accept it. 

                STAFF:  Next question. Washington Post 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, you referenced earlier that the U.S. recently began flying Predator drones out of Incirlik.  First of all, does the U.S. have permission from the Iraqi government to fly them over Iraqi airspace? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Yes. 

                Q:  And part B is the little broader question.  The U.S. military has also acknowledged that recently it's been flying drones -- (inaudible) -- surveillance missions, the Seychelles -- (inaudible) -- and these are places that the United States is not at war.  Is this the way of the future for operations -- (inaudible)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, I'm not going to discuss the operations that we're conducting with regards to a number of areas around the world that deal with the defense of the United States. 

                I think it's fair to say that, you know, it's -- these are technologies that are extremely important in developing the kind of intelligence and information that we need in order to be able to defend the security of our country.  It also, I think, is extremely helpful in terms of our -- of our abilities to defend ourselves against those that have tried to ultimately attack the United States. 

                So, it -- bottom line here is that these are important technologies.  They are important assets.  They're extremely important to our ability to defend the country.  And we're going to go continue to use them in the defense of United States security. 

                STAFF:  (Off mic.) 

                Q:  (Off mic) – Mr. Secretary –(inaudible) withdrawing from Iraq, what were your feelings?  There’s the nature of the debate going on what the United States has gained or lost, Which side did the U.S. gain or lose -- (inaudible). 

                SEC. PANETTA:  When you -- when you participate in a historic ceremony that marks the end of a war, that kind of ceremony has a huge impact in terms of making you think about what's involved in war, of what wars are about and the price that's paid in war, and what are the gains and what are the losses as a result of that.  So it makes you think about all of those things. 

                In this case, there's no question that, you know, the United States was divided going into that war, but I think the United States is united coming out of that war.  We all recognize the tremendous price that has been paid in lives and blood.  And yet, I think we also recognize that those lives were not lost in vain; that the end result of that has been to establish a sovereign and independent Iraq that can govern and secure itself; and that it's moving forward with establishing the kind of democratic government that I think will be an important stabilizing factor in that region of the world. 

                So, as difficult as it was, as difficult as the price was that was involved here, not only in the lives of Americans but in the lives of Iraqis, I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world, that hopefully can begin to enjoy the freedoms, liberties and opportunities that all people ought to be able to enjoy. 

                STAFF:  New York Times, have a follow-up? 

                Q:  Are you optimistic that Iraq will stay -- (inaudible)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I -- you know, I am optimistic.  I think that my sense is that they are very loyal to their country.  They want -- they want a sovereign Iraq.  They want a strong Iraq.  

                Obviously, you know, there -- like any democracy, there are differences.  There will be challenges.  They will have tough issues they have to confront.  And there will be those that will try to divide them.  There are -- there are going to be those that will try to influence divisions within Iraq, both outside and inside Iraq.  But I think the people of Iraq and the leadership of Iraq is committed to a strong and sovereign and independent Iraq.  And I think, for that reason, I'm confident that they're going to be able to succeed. 

                Q:  (inaudible) – When you look at the narrative arc travels from yesterday, tomorrow, Iraq was a major commissioning, very expensive, very costly.  Libya -- (off mic) -- America -- (off mic) -- been able to be honest – to put American troops on the ground.  When you look at these lessons, Mr. Secretary how will they influence your strategic study, and the way you shape the budget for next year --(inaudible) --Thank you. 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think, as I mentioned at the ceremony yesterday, that one of the important things for the experienced leadership -- for the experienced military leadership that has come out of these wars, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the importance of learning the lessons of war.  And as we go through the process of having to achieve savings in the -- in the defense budget and reduce that budget by almost 450 billion (dollars) over the next 10 years, I think it's an opportunity for us to shape a defense system for the future based on learning the lessons of the past. 

                There's no question that, you know, we are a country that will continue to have force projection in the world.  We will have that force projection in the Pacific.  We'll have it in the Middle East.  We will continue to maintain a presence in other parts of the world as well.  But the bottom line is that we are going to be smaller force that's going to have to be more agile, more flexible and more capable in dealing with threats in the world.  That requires -- that requires not only that we develop the strongest and the best technology, but it also requires that we develop the strongest and best partnerships wherever we can in the world. 

                So I think those are the lessons we're going to have to bring to bear as we shape the defense of the future. 

                STAFF:  We have time for a few more questions. 

                Q: Mr. Secretary, how much influence can the U.S. have over the process that's unfolding in Libya now?  And do you anticipate any assistance that you can give to that process in the near term, or are we essentially waiting for events to unfold? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think -- I think it has to unfold a little bit.  I think they have to determine what are -- you know, what are their needs, what steps do they need to take.  You know, the last thing you want to do is to try to impose something on a country that has just gone through what the Libyans have gone through.  They have earned the right to try to determine their future.  They have earned the right to try to work their way through the issues that they're going to have to confront.  And as they do that, obviously, you know, we're prepared , if they want us to provide whatever  assistance that they ask us to do.  I know the NATO countries have indicated the same willingness to do that.  

                But this is an issue for the Libyans to decide and work through.  And we will do whatever we can to encourage them to move in the right direction. 

                STAFF:  And finally. 

                Q:  Secretary Panetta -- (off mic) this has to go on Jennifer’s question on Syria.  Russia has offered a new draft resolution at the U.N. singling out the Syrian government for greater criticism than it has in the past.  How do you see this latest news that U.N., -- the international community and the United States particularly -- do vis-a-vis Syria at the U.N. who have been reluctant with Russia and China? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, I think -- I think it was an important step for Russia to indicate that they were willing to work with an effort in the United Nations that would bring greater pressure on Syria.  There's a lot to be worked through.  I think the secretary of state will engage with Russia to indicate how best to bring them into that effort and to develop something that the United States and the international community can support.  

                But I think it's clear from the steps that Russia took that more and more, the international community is coming together as one to say to Syria and to the Assad regime that we can no longer tolerate the kind of killings that have gone on, the kind of abuse of human rights that have gone on in Syria, and that Assad needs to step down, and the Syrian people need to be able to move forward to establish the institutions of government that will protect their rights. 

                The best thing going right now is the unity of the international community in delivering that message.  Not only is it happening in the United Nations, but it's also happening with the Arab nations as well in the Arab League.  That kind of unified effort, that kind of unified pressure, I think, is ultimately going to pay off. 

                STAFF:  Thank you very much.  Appreciate it. 

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