Secretary of Defense
Thank you, Chairman Dunford, for that tribute to the President and the First Lady’s commitment to our troops and their families.
Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Department of Defense leadership, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen – welcome, as the Department honors our Commander-in-Chief of eight critical years one last time. This afternoon, I’d like to do so by speaking of those aspects of his service and commitment to our national defense that have been so striking and that will be so memorable, each one a constant throughout his tenure as our President: his focused strategic leadership around the world; his steps to strengthen our force, both in its people as well as its capabilities; and his decision-making.
Through it all, President Obama has led our military with an appreciation that America’s defense is so vital that we, to whom it is entrusted, must ensure its continuity and excellence across the years and across the domains of armed conflict – not just air, land, and sea, but also space, and cyberspace – across parties, across government agencies, from strategic era to strategic era, and from presidential administration to presidential administration. And he’s done so not only for the last eight years; even today, as we prepare for a new administration, we’re following the President’s leadership and ensuring a smooth and orderly transition.
Our military is a global force, one that President Obama has steadfastly and strategically led in every region of the world to ensure the men and women of the strongest and most principled fighting force in history effectively defend our country, deter our adversaries, bolster our alliances and partnerships, and make a better world for our children.
In the Asia-Pacific, President Obama has sustained a comprehensive rebalance of military power to that region, the single most consequential for America’s future. There, we’re repositioning 60 percent of our naval forces and overseas air assets, including some of our most advanced new systems. And we’re strengthening and modernizing key alliances and partnerships – with Japan, with South Korea, India, Vietnam, Australia, and many others.
In Europe, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and use of hybrid warfare techniques, President Obama has stood strong with our NATO allies and led a united response to deter Russian aggression, enhancing U.S. force presence and implementing a new playbook so NATO can adapt against 21st century threats.
In the Middle East, President Obama secured an accord that’s verifiably preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – removing a key source of danger in the region. But as we continue to counter Iran’s other destabilizing activities, he’s also strengthened defense relationships with all our key regional partners – for example, providing our ally Israel unprecedented security assistance and advanced capabilities across domains.
And around the world, in the face of terrorist threats from al-Qaeda to al-Shabab to ISIL, President Obama has led the most robust and sustained counter-terrorism fight in American history.
In the counter-ISIL campaign, the President consistently supported the development and acceleration of our coalition military campaign plan – focused on destroying the fact and the idea of an Islamic state based on this evil ideology in Iraq and Syria; countering the ISIL cancer’s metastases everywhere they emerge; and, most important, protecting our homeland and our people. In addition to countering ISIL, he’s taken action to ensure Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists to threaten America. He’s directed eight years of unrelenting strikes on al-Qaeda to devastate that terrorist organization – both before and after bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. He’s built a counterterrorism apparatus that has thwarted countless plots against our homeland. And he did all this – all of it – consistent with our values, because our President knows, as he’s put it, that “we lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.”
At the same time, President Obama made sure our military stayed strong and grew stronger – in our people, and our capabilities – to meet those ambitious but necessary commitments.
Indeed, our President knows very well that the single factor above all others that makes the U.S. military the finest is its people – some represented here today, far more around the world.
President Obama has been dedicated to improving the quality of life of our force, making sure our servicemembers get what they need – not only when it comes to training and equipment, but also important benefits critical to recruitment and retention, like maternity and paternity leave.
He’s helped keep sacred commitments to wounded warriors, to families of the fallen, to military families, and to veterans.
He’s helped keep sacred the commitment to wounded warriors, the commitment to the memories of the fallen, to military families, and to veterans.
He’s made sure our people are treated with the dignity and honor befitting the profession of arms – from supporting DoD’s efforts to rid our ranks of sexual assault, to improving our suicide prevention efforts.
He’s helped ensure the long-term viability of what is, after all, an all-volunteer force recruited in comparatively small numbers from the entire American population, recognizing we have to compete for top talent, and that to have the best we must select the best based solely on their qualifications to meet our high standards – not race, gender, identity, or sexual orientation – rather, focusing only on whether someone can meet our standards.
And he’s also supported veterans in their transition to whatever’s next for them in life – whether it’s earning a degree, finding a job, or starting a business. I know how much that matters, because I’m old enough to remember a shameful time when veterans were treated very differently.
After our people, it’s America’s capabilities that make our military edge second-to-none – and President Obama has sharpened that as well. He always asks, “Are we looking around the corner?” – to ensure we not only anticipate the changing nature of warfare and future threats, but also stay ahead of them, and take full advantage of new technology.
Under his leadership, DoD began returning to full-spectrum capability in the Army and Marine Corps after many years of skillful but all-absorbing focus on large counterinsurgency deployments. We grew the size and lethality of our Navy, and drove forward development and production of new fighters, bombers, and tankers for the Air Force. We increased funding for innovative technologies and R&D – notably in critical domains like space, cyber, and electronic warfare – all this amidst persistent budget turbulence and uncertainty. And even as President Obama has worked toward a world without nuclear weapons, he’s also ensured the United States maintains a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent for as long as these weapons exist.
And finally, finally, from the vantage of someone who has worked for 11 defense secretaries over the last 35 years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and now being Secretary myself, I want to offer some perspective on the nature and quality of President Obama’s leadership and decision-making as our Commander-in-Chief. Because it’s often most appreciated by those who’ve had to sign deployment orders, who’ve been to Dover, Bethesda, Walter Reed – who know the decisions he makes have consequences.
Most Americans don’t get the chance to see how President Obama makes decisions about our national security. So let me give you a window into what it’s like when we meet in the Situation Room or the Oval Office.
To begin with, he’s steady, and deliberate, and rigorous, and demanding – of himself and of us – always reflecting the seriousness with which he approaches the grave responsibilities of the presidency. He makes us think through the consequences of a proposed course of action as thoroughly as they can be foreseen. And he always focuses first and fixedly – soberly actually – on our North Star: America’s national interests.
I’ve been grateful that I always got a full hearing for my views and recommendations. And in my observation, Chairman Dunford always did as well – for President Obama valued not only my strategic advice and his other advisors, but also candid professional military advice. And he was always willing to listen to what we had to say, even if I knew it wasn’t something he wanted to hear.
President Obama also knows it’s not only whether the decisions made are good that matters, but also whether they are implemented with excellence. Now, that’s a management style that’s actually rare among policymakers in Washington. Whether it was accelerating the counter-ISIL campaign, stopping the spread of Ebola, or rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, President Obama has always insisted on seeing the job done right to the end. He never hesitates to ask hard questions, and keep asking until there’s an answer. That’s not only because he wanted his decision met and our objective achieved – though both are important – but because he was committed to making sure all our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had what they needed to do their job.
As you heard from Chairman Dunford, that kind of commitment means a lot to our troops. I’ve seen that up close as well. Many times I’ve visited servicemembers on bases after the President had stopped by, or wounded warriors and their families at military hospitals after he’s visited with them. And no matter how much time had passed – whether he’d visited the week before, the month before, or the year before – they remember the genuineness of President Obama. They can feel, as only young troops can, the unending concern he has for our men and women in uniform and their families, and the boundless care with which he makes decisions that put them in harm’s way.
Over the course of eight years, President Obama’s level of dedication and mastery of his responsibilities has been remarkable. It’s difficult for anyone to imagine the toll of never being able to unplug from their duties and their stakes for that long, all the while being a gracious and inspiring example – and all the while also helping raise two daughters. It’s impossible to imagine a man carrying more – although possibly two sons!
Mr. President, for all this and more, I have been proud to serve as your Secretary of Defense. And from me and the entire Defense Department, thank you in full measure for your leadership, your support, and your devotion to our country and its defense. May you begin to feel the great weight shift from your shoulders. May you feel the warm wind of a nation’s gratitude at your back. May God bless you and your family. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.
Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.