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Townhall Meeting with Secretary Panetta

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - October 24, 2011

            (Applause.)

            HOST:  Ladies and gentlemen, we are truly blessed and honored to have with us a man who's dedicated his whole adult life to service -- Army officer, congressman from the state of California, White House chief of staff, director of the CIA and now our 23rd secretary of defense, let's give a warm alliance welcome to Mr. Leon Panetta.  (Applause.)  (Audio break.)

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Again, it's a tremendous honor to have a chance to be here and to be able to say thank you to all of you for the great service that you provide.

            This is -- this is my first trip to Japan as secretary of defense, but I've had the opportunity to come here a number of times as a member of Congress, as a chief of staff to the president of the United States -- had the opportunity to accompany President Clinton to Japan; I came here as the director of the CIA and enjoyed that opportunity here as well; and now as secretary of defense. 

            And in this capacity I bring a very important message to Japan and to this region, and the basic message is that the United States, as a Pacific nation, is and will remain a Pacific power in this region.  We will always maintain a strong presence in the Pacific, and we will be a force for peace and prosperity in the Pacific region.  This alliance with Japan stretches over 50 years, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is in many ways the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific -- and it will be for the next 50 years as well. 

            We will continue to strengthen our presence in this area and continue to build the strong alliance that we've developed with Japan and with other countries throughout this region.  I just had the opportunity to be in Indonesia and meet with the ASEAN defense ministers, and I conveyed the same message to them:  The United States will continue to work with all of them to improve our cooperation, to improve our assistance and to make sure that we strengthen security for all nations in the Pacific region.

            I want to commend all of the extraordinary efforts that the Japanese forces have made here to rapidly mobilize, to organize and to bring relief to their fellow citizens at a time of great stress and great crisis and great peril as a result of the earthquake that Japan suffered.  The world witnessed the strength, the character and the resilience of the Japanese people, and I pay tribute to Japan for the way they responded. 

            And I'm also proud of the way the United States helped Japan in this crisis. 

            The military -- the United States military -- should be justly proud of the great work that you have done in supporting the Japanese troops as we battled the difficult elements, as we brought relief to the suffering and as we helped begin the rebuilding that has taken place here.  Close bonds have been forged between our troops and between the Japanese in an effort to assure that this great alliance -- this great alliance -- would always be able to respond to help the people not only of the nation of Japan, but of our country as well.

            That's the bond that you have, and that's the bond that I see in coming here to Japan.  And for that reason, I want to in particular thank all of you for the service that you provide.  The strength of America lies in the service of the men and women who serve in uniform and have put their lives on the line.  And I know that those who serve here in Japan have really contributed to the security of this area.

            The United States in many ways is at a turning point because of the sacrifice of the U.S. men and women in uniform.  Today, we are at a turning point after a decade of war.  On terrorism, we have significantly weakened al-Qaida and its militant allies.  We've been able to go after Osama bin Laden successfully; we went after al-Awlaki in Yemen; we've gone after most of the leadership of al-Qaida.  And as a result of that, we have significantly undermined their command and control and their ability to plan attacks on our country and on other countries.  That is because of the efforts of many of you in the military, and also our intelligence communities as well.

            The key right now is to continue that pressure and make sure that they never have any place to hide -- whether it's Pakistan, whether it's Yemen, whether it's Somalia, whether it's the Maghreb in North Africa.  We have to keep the pressure on and do what the president said we must do, which is to dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qaida and its militant allies.  And we will do that.

            The president announced just a few days ago that we will begin to withdraw all of our combat forces in Iraq by the end of this year, pursuant to a security agreement that was worked out by President Bush and that President Obama said he would adhere to as well.  And so by the end of this year -- we're already beginning that process, but by the end of this year, our combat forces will be out of Iraq.

            The mission there was to establish an Iraq that could govern, defend and secure itself, and Iraq has come a long way in their ability to be able to do that.  At the same time, it's important that the world understand that we are going to maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq, and that we will continue to work with them to establish a normal relationship that will provide for training, will provide for assistance, and will give them, hopefully, the capacity to be able to continue to secure their own country.

            At the same time, for Iran and anybody else who has any other ideas, let me make clear that the United States maintains 40,000 troops in that region, 23,000 in Kuwait, and numbers of others in countries throughout that region.

            Let me make clear to them and to anybody else that America will maintain a presence in that part of the world.

            In addition, we are seeing in Afghanistan great work by General John Allen, who developed a plan that will gradually reduce our forces there through the end of 2014 pursuant to what was agreed to by NATO in Lisbon.  And John Allen has done a remarkable job and is beginning a transition whereby, as we reduce our forces, we transition to Afghan security and Afghan governance.  And I believe that we have made great progress there as well in weakening the Taliban, in building up the Afghan army and police, and in giving them the capacity to be able to secure their country.  All of that has been done because of the sacrifice of the men and women in uniform who have put their lives on the line.

            In addition, just this last week we saw the mission in Libya come to a successful conclusion.  And I also want to commend not only U.S. forces that were involved in that mission, but I want to commend the members of NATO and also the partners of NATO, all of whom participated in this mission, a mission that has now given Libya back to the Libyan people and removed Gadhafi from power.  They have a chance now to establish a new country, one that represents all of the people of Libya and one that represents all of their hopes for freedom and for the ability to govern themselves.  They just announced the liberation yesterday.  And so all of us can take a great deal of pride in the work that was done to achieve that mission.

            All of this would not have happened without the sacrifices of those who were willing to serve.

            Work remains.  Work remains.  We've got to continue to confront terrorism.  We've got to continue to confront nuclear proliferation in Iran, in North Korea.  We've got to continue to fight now a whole new battlefield for the future, called cyber, and the attacks that come from cyber.  We've got to deal with rising powers.  We've got to continue to deal with turmoil in the Middle East.  So there are challenges that are out there, but we have the opportunity now to be able to focus on those challenges, provide an American military that is capable, that's agile, that's flexible and that can respond to those threats.

            And most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.  And we will.  This is an important region.  Security of the world in many ways is dependent on the security of the Pacific.  And so we will continue to do that.

            Most of all, I wanted to come here to thank you.  You are the long arm of American military power.  You do a tough and a vital job, and I thank you.  I thank you for your service, because America's strength is in people like you, those willing to give back to their country, to sacrifice and to put their lives on the line.

            The new Greatest Generation in America is the one that has gone to war these last 10 years.  They have borne an unbelievable burden.  More than 6,200 have given their lives.  More than 46,000 have been wounded, many with terrible wounds that they now bear as wounded warriors.  You have done everything you've been asked to do, and we thank you for that. 

            Your sacrifice, your service, and the sacrifice and support of your families makes our great nation what it is -- a strong, enduring nation that seeks peace and prosperity in the world.  I want you to know how grateful I am to all of you, as secretary of defense.

            And finally, one of my great responsibilities is to protect those who protect America.  That's my job.  I know how important it is when you're away from family, when you're away from those you love, the one thing you want is to make very sure that they're taken care of.  That's my fight, that's my duty, to watch your back and to fight to make sure that you're protected, that you have all the resources you need in order to make sure that we protect America.

            As all of you know, we're going to -- we're facing some very challenging fiscal issues in America, and there are going to be some tough choices associated with those issues; but I believe, in talking with the service chiefs, in working with them, that we can do this, and we can do it in a way that will keep America strong. 

            United States is the strongest force on the face of the Earth, and I intend to maintain that.  So as I go through these budget decisions, let me make clear what my goals are and what my guidelines are.  Number one, that we protect the best defense in the world.  We will do that.  Number two, that we will not hollow out this force.  I am not going to just do simply cuts across the board.  We're going to look at areas where we can get efficiencies, where we can eliminate duplication, where we can eliminate overhead and look at all areas in order to make the best decisions when it comes to the budget challenges that we face.

            And most importantly, I am not going to break faith with the people who serve in uniform, who put their lives on the line time and time and time again.  I commit to you that I will do everything I can to protect the benefits that were promised to you and to your families.  That's essential to our commitment to you for what you have done for America.

            So let me say that the things that I talked about this evening are in large measure due to your service, your sacrifice and the fact that you care about protecting our country. 

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