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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 19, 1997 9:15 PM EDT

[The following remarks were made by the Secretary while addressing servicemembers at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia.]

I had retired from the Senate and was planning to enter private life when the President called and asked me to be Secretary of Defense. It was an opportunity that I could not refuse. It gave me an opportunity to serve in a capacity to represent you in a way that few of us ever have in a lifetime. And so I said without any hesitation I would be proud to serve as Secretary of Defense, and I must tell you that in the past six months there have been some difficult moments, but it has been an experience of a lifetime for me.

At the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were a lot of people who started talking about the end of history and that meant that we were going to see a sweep of Western capitalism and economic freedom and social freedom spread throughout much of the world. And there was talk about a new world order, and we were looking forward to that very much, and of course we found out that there is also a lot of disorder in the world. That there were countries like Iraq and Iran who are determined to drive the United States out of the Middle East. And as everyone of you knows, the Middle East is of vital interest to the United States.

Many of you, I'm sure, from time to time, wonder why you are here, and is it really necessary that you be here? The answer is yes, because the Middle East is of vital interest to our economy, it is of vital interest to the Western World's economy, and what takes place here determines the fate of many countries all over the world. And so, when you wonder why you are here, you are carrying out a mission of extreme importance to us. And so, for those moments of doubt, when the heat gets up to 117 plus, and when you are away from your families -- I know that you miss them dearly -- you have to remember that you have a mission, which is vital, that's important to all of us, yet truly appreciated. You are in fact the muscle behind our diplomacy. But we have to have great diplomacy in the world -- but we also have to have great warriors. And you are the warriors that make our diplomats successful. They cannot achieve at the bargaining table, what we can't win on the battlefield. And so you are the muscle and you are really the steel in our sword of freedom that we have, and I wanted you to know how deeply you are appreciated.

I am fond of recalling what a Roman historian said one time, when he talked about the Roman Legion in a particularly bloody battle. He said, they made a desert and they called it peace. You, ironically, are in a desert and you are keeping the peace. That is a very, very important mission for you. It is a dangerous one. Everyone recognizes that this is a high threat area. You have to remain on alert constantly and you have to keep alert for your buddies as well. And if you stay alert, you stay alive and you carry out the mission successfully. Damon Runyon once said that "the race does not always go to the swiftest or the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet." And the fact of the matter is, you are the swiftest, you are the strongest and that is the reason why our allies bet on us, that's the reason why our enemies have to take a very long look when the decide to challenge us. And that is the reason why we are looked upon as the most reliable nation in the world. We are the world's only superpower, and that requires a great responsibility on our part.

As you know, we just completed a review of our military force structure, the so-called QDR -- Quadrennial Defense Review, and what it said, essentially, is that we are going to remain engaged in world affairs. We are going to continue to shape the environment, we are going to be out there in the Asia-Pacific region -- 100,000 strong, we're going to be in the European theater, we're going to be in the Middle East as we are today, we're going to be in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and Oman and other Gulf countries. Because in that way we are able to make sure that we reassure our allies that we are strong, that we are swift, and we are determined to protect our interest and their interest, as well.

So I just wanted to take this opportunity to get here as quickly as I could during my first few months in office. To meet with you, to listen to you, to find out what you think we should be doing and can be doing better and to tell you how much we really appreciate what you are doing. It's a great sacrifice that you are making, that sacrifice does not go unnoticed. And to the extent that we can, we need to not only build new machines and equipment and war-making types of technology that we are developing, we have to continue to attract, to recruit, and, more importantly, to retain the very best and the brightest. And so, people come first, resources, and then the products. If we can't keep you highly trained, highly ready and highly satisfied, we won't be the strongest force in the world for freedom today. So it is an opportunity, not for me to make a long speech but to have a chance to talk to you and find out what you think we are doing right and what you think we are doing wrong, and to help me take that message back to Washington so that I can work with Capitol Hill, they are the ones who control the purse strings -- I use to help control the purse strings, but now I can only make recommendations -- but to the extent that you have some ideas that I can take back -- I'm here to listen to them.

So, I just want to say thanks for all that you are doing for our country. I want to thank your families for the sacrifices that they are making, waiting for you back home, and to let you know that we are truly appreciative of the best fighting force in world. Thank you very much.