WASHINGTON, May 22, 2011 — The ultimate guarantee against success of aggressors, dictators and terrorists in the 21st century is the size, strength and global reach of the United States military, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
“Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war,” Gates said, speaking at a graduation commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Gates acknowledged that defense cuts will have to be made in light of the nation’s steep fiscal imbalances and mounting debt, and that Washington cannot put off dealing with the crisis.
“But going forward, we must be clear-eyed about the fact that there are no painless answers,” Gates said.
At the same time, Gates said, the United States faces a complex and unpredictable international security environment that includes a major war in Afghanistan, winding up the war in Iraq, revolution throughout the Middle East, new rising powers, nuclear proliferation in Iran and Korea, the continued threat of terrorism.
But, Gates added, America has faced equally tough times in the past and emerged successfully.
“We have battled slavery and intolerance in our own society, and on the global stage prevailed against Nazi Germany and Soviet communism. We have seen periods of painful economic collapse give way to renewed and unprecedented prosperity,” Gates said. “Our progress has been sometimes unsteady, and sometimes too slow. Winston Churchill purportedly said during World War II, ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.’ ”
But the U.S. story has been, and still is, the envy of the world, Gates said.
“Indeed, the death of Osama bin Laden after a decade-long manhunt by the United States reminded us earlier this month that, as President [Barack] Obama said, when faced with tough times, ‘We do not falter. We don’t turn back. We pick ourselves up and we get on with the hard task of keeping our country strong and safe,” the secretary said.
Americans live now in a time of “great necessities,” Gates said.
“For my entire life, the United States has been the most economically dynamic, powerful country and government in the world — the indispensible nation,” he said. “It still is all those things, and indeed, as I’ve traveled the world over the last four and a half years, I have been struck by the number of countries – from Europe to Southeast Asia – who want to forge closer ties with us and our military, and want the United States to play a bigger, not smaller, role as partners providing stability, security and prosperity across the globe.
“But there is no question that our ability to lead, and our economic strength – a given for nearly three quarters of a century – are being tested by fiscal problems at home and rising powers and emergent threats abroad. Your lives will be defined by how we respond to these challenges,” he added.
America cannot assume, because things have worked out in the past, that the problems facing the country eventually will resolve themselves, Gates said. And, he added, the United States needs leaders able to make tough choices and work together.
As leaders debate those choices, the secretary said, some will call to shrink America’s international commitments and the military’s size and capabilities.
“As part of America getting its financial house in order, the size of our defense budget must be addressed,” Gates said. “That means culling more bureaucratic excess and overhead, taking a hard look at personnel levels and costs, and re-examining missions and capabilities to separate the desirable or optional from the essential.”
In considering those cuts, though, Gates urged caution.
“A recurring theme in America for nearly a century has been a tendency to conclude after each war that the fundamental nature of man and the iron realities of nations have changed — that history, in all of its unpredictable and tragic dimensions, has come to a civilized end [and] that we will no longer have to confront foreign enemies with size, steel and strength,” Gates said.
Another tendency, he added, has been for Americans repeatedly to avert their eyes in the belief that remote events elsewhere in the world need not engage this country.
“The lessons of history tell us we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon, because ultimately they will need to be confronted,” Gates said. “If history – and religion – teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world — people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women.”
In keeping with his most recent commencement speeches at Washington State University, North Dakota State University and the University of Oklahoma, Gates used the opportunity to issue a call to public service.
“We need the active involvement of our best, most honest, citizens to make our democracy work — whether as candidates for public office, as civil servants, members of our armed forces or in other roles,” he said.
Gates, who entered government service 45 years ago this summer, will retire as secretary of defense next month. He challenged the graduates to consider taking an active role in their nation’s life by committing to spending at least part of their careers in public service.
Gates closed with a quote by the elder President John Adams in a letter to his son, Thomas Boylston Adams, in which he wrote: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
“To this I would add,” Gates said, “if America declines to lead in the world, others will not. So to the Notre Dame class of 2011, I would ask the wisest and most honest of you to find a way to serve and to lead our country to new greatness at home and around the globe.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)