Brookings Institution Dinner (Washington, D.C.)

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As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Monday, May 05, 2008

Thank you, Strobe.

It is an honor to be with so many distinguished guests and friends from different walks of American life.

As some of you know, I've been on the road for much of the past week, visiting Mexico and Fort Bliss in Texas.

So it's certainly good to be back in Washington--NOT.

They say Washington's a city of monuments. I have to say the most monumental things that I've seen in over 40 years are the egos of some of the people who work in this town. The most monumental ego I ever saw, as Secretary McNamara can probably attest, was the first president I worked for, Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson once had the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ludwig Erhard, to the LBJ ranch, and Erhard at one point asked, "Well, Mr. President, were you born in a log cabin?" And LBJ responded, "Why no, Mr. Chancellor, I was born in a manger."

Or the time he gave a stag dinner in the White House and Bill Moyers was there and Moyers was a White House staffer seated at the end of the table below the salt, where White House staffers belong. Johnson asked Moyers to say the blessing and Moyers started to pray and a few seconds into the prayer, Johnson lifted his head, looked down at Moyers and said, "Bill, I can't hear you." And Moyers, without lifting his head, looked and said to the President, "That's cause I'm not speaking to you."

Washington is also a city of monumental embarrassments. Like the first time that President Nixon met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir after appointing Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. Golda Meir had with her her Cambridge-educated foreign minister, Abba Eban. Nixon turned to Golda Meir and said "Just think, Madam Prime Minister, we now both have Jewish foreign ministers." And Golda Meir looked at him and said, "Yes, but mine speaks English."

As Strobe mentioned, one of the things I've tried to do in my limited tenure as Secretary is focus attention on areas where our military, and the U.S. government as a whole, need to change to deal with the kind of security challenges we are going to face for the next several decades.

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time--the debate here in Washington is now principally about pacing and timing. But the kind of adversary we face today--violent jihadist networks untethered from nation states--will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the "Long War" is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.

At the same time, rising powers of new wealth and uncertain intentions are showing assertiveness on the world stage. Rogue regimes continue to pursue dangerous weapons and the means to deliver them. All these challenges will co-exist alongside the destabilizing scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation.

In many ways, the basic nature of man and the iron realities of nations have not changed. What has changed, in my view, is that the international environment today is more complex, and more dangerous, than it has been in many decades.

The challenges are manifold and nearly all, by their nature, long-term, requiring patience and commitment across multiple administrations and congresses. Many challenges will emerge from within countries with whom we are not at war. Coping with most will require working with, or through, other nations. The challenges cannot be overcome by military means alone, and extend well beyond the traditional domain of any single government agency or department. They will require our government to operate with unprecedented unity, agility, and creativity. …