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March 1 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - March 1, 2011

            SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.  I have several personnel announcements to make, and then Admiral Mullen will provide a report on his visit to the Middle East.

            Today, I'm announcing that I've recommended three officers to the president for senior leadership positions. 

            I will recommend Vice Admiral William McRaven, who currently heads Joint Special Operations Command, for promotion to a fourth star and for nomination to take charge of U.S. Special Operations Command.  He will replace Admiral Eric Olson, who will retire at the completion of his tenure at SOCOM.

            I will recommend General James Thurman, currently the commander of Army Forces Command, to be the next commander of United States Forces Korea, replacing General "Skip" Sharp who will retire at the end of his tour.

            Finally, I'm recommending Vice Admiral Joe Kernan, my senior military assistant, for the post of deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, replacing Lieutenant General Ken Keen.

            We will properly recognize Admiral Olson, General Sharp and General Keen and their decades of public dedicated service at an appropriate time. 

            The three officers I am recommending today to be their successors have the right mix of military acumen, strategic vision and diplomatic and interagency skills that these posts will require.

            Admiral McRaven, a former commander of SEAL Team 3 and Special Operations Command Europe, has led a JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] team that has been ruthlessly and effectively taking the fight to America's most dangerous and vicious enemies. 

            General Thurman currently runs the Army's largest organization, with responsibility for oversight, manning, training and equipping of more than 700,000 soldiers in the continental United States.  General Thurman also has significant experience in combat theaters, including service as a division commander in Iraq.

            And Joe Kernan returns to SOUTHCOM, where he previously commanded 4th Fleet, the first Navy SEAL to lead a numbered fleet.  On a personal note, I'd like to thank Joe for his dedicated service for the past two years in my office.  His advice, informed by his background as a special operations warrior, has been invaluable, and he will be sorely missed.

            Joe's successor as senior military assistant will be Lieutenant General John Kelly, who currently leads Marine Forces Reserve and previously commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the 1st MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force], in Anbar province in Iraq.  And I look forward to his coming on board later this month.

            Before taking questions, I'd -- and turning it over to Admiral Mullen, I'd like to note the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, the last living American veteran from World War I.  I had the honor of meeting Mr. Buckles almost exactly three years ago at an event here at the Pentagon honoring the World War I generation. 

            As I said then, we will always be grateful for what these veterans did for their country.  And in Mr. Buckles' case, we are all glad that he had the longevity that he had, enjoyed on this Earth.

            Admiral.

            ADM. MULLEN:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary. 

            Let me start by saying that I fully concur with the senior leader recommendations that you've made today.  I know each of these officers very well.  And I've watched them work and lead and fight in some very difficult times.  And I know each of them will perform their new duties with the same energy and innovation with which they have served their entire careers.

            All of them are great leaders in their own right, and all of them are ready for the challenges you've proposed they now take on.  The Joint Chiefs and I look forward to working with them and will give them our full support should the president see fit to nominate them and the Senate see fit to confirm them.

            If I may, I would like to make mention of my trip last week through the Arabian Gulf region.  Though long planned, the trip certainly took on a fresh character in the face of popular unrest and revolt across North Africa and the Arab world.  Seven countries and seven days later, I can tell you this:  The pace of change and the course of events are moving literally at the speed of Twitter. 

            When I took off from Andrews last Saturday, protests in Bahrain were turning bloody, uprisings in Libya were merely percolating, and demonstrations in Yemen were fragmented and disorganized.  Today the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain is a place of nonviolent activism, Gadhafi is waging a war on his own people, and opposition groups in and around Sanaa are coalescing, setting up camp and vowing to fight on.

            Oman was quiet on Wednesday when I was there.  By the time I landed back at Andrews, anti-government protests in the northern town of Sohar had turned violent and two people had been killed.  Never have I seen so much happening so quickly in so many different places at once. 

            But people there were glad to see me.  They still want a strong partnership with the United States and with U.S. armed forces specifically.  And I believe it was -- it is absolutely vital that we look for ways where and when we can to foster those relationships. 

            I recognize this won't always be possible.  The very preliminary steps we'd taken to begin military dialogue in Libya, for instance, have now rightly been halted.  But elsewhere in the region, we find that military partnerships, long-standing and rooted in professionalism, offer a means of communication and even clarity in these uncertain times that other forms of interaction may not yield. 

            That's another reason I did not alter my plans to make this trip, quite frankly.  I thought it was important to go and to listen.  I wanted to gain their perspectives on what is happening and hear directly from them on what plans, if any, they were making. 

            As you might expect, no two countries' leaders -- military or civilian -- are approaching this crisis in quite the same way.  Each is guided by his own sense of urgency and domestic politics.  But all of them understand the seriousness of the passions driving these protests, and all of them are concerned about the broader regional implications.

            Iran loomed large.  And while I do not share the same worry that others harbor about Iran's role in fomenting the unrest, we are seeing no indications of any credible influence from Tehran in that regard.

            I do agree that the regime needs to take advantage of it for their own purposes.  My message, therefore, was one of reassurance.  The U.S. military will not lighten our load, we will not dull our focus on the security commitments we have made or on preserving our ability to thwart the actions of any hostile state in the region.

            Iran is the real loser here, whether they want to admit it or not.  And they've had no hand in the change sweeping the region, except the one they have used to slap back their own people.  Violence only begets more violence, while peaceful protests and government restraint can lead to meaningful dialogue and progress and a commitment to change, as we've seen in Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia.

            Thank you.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Admiral Mullen just mentioned that in Libya Moammar Gadhafi is waging war on his own people, as you put it.  What -- is U.S. military intervention realistic?  And what specific kinds of options are you considering?  Could you describe, for example, the possibility of a no-fly zone or arming rebel forces?

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