Remarks of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
David H. Petraeus
at Furman University’s Wilkins Legislative and Civic Awards Ceremony
(as prepared for delivery January 24, 2012)
January 27, 2012
Unity Amid Contention: Our Bond as Americans
Well good afternoon! Thank you all very much for that warm welcome. It’s truly a pleasure to be back in South Carolina and a privilege to speak at this wonderful event—especially with so many eminent government, industry, and, of course, higher education leaders present. It is great to be with y’all!
Actually, my apologies. I was reminded this morning by a native southerner that “y’all” is singular; “all you all” is plural. I clearly need to schedule a southern-speak refresher course.
In any event, I am thrilled to be here with all y’all this afternoon!
In fact, although I’ve spoken to government assemblies in Washington and in allied country capitals, as well as across the Middle East and South Asia, from tribal councils in Iraq to groups of elders in Afghanistan, this is the first time I’ve ever addressed the combined legislators of a US state government. And, I must say, it’s great not to need a translator—with all y’all!
In all seriousness, I feel truly privileged to address the representatives of the people of the great state of South Carolina. Governor, it’s an honor to be here with you and the state legislators today—especially, I might add, now that the presidential primary vote here is complete!
I also feel very privileged to help present awards named for David Wilkins, a great South Carolinian well known to everyone in this room. As both a distinguished member of our country’s diplomatic corps and a former Speaker of your state’s House of Representatives, Ambassador Wilkins has embodied the civic spirit and bipartisanship that are absolutely essential to our democracy. To him, to President Rod Smolla of Furman, and to Secretary Richard Riley of the Riley Institute, thank you for sponsoring these important awards—awards that recognize the virtues of leadership and citizen engagement. Please join me in applauding each of these individuals—and Paula—for the roles they play in this important program.
I also thank my good friend Senator Lindsay Graham for conveying the invitation to this event and for his gracious introduction. Indeed, that was one of those introductions that I wish my parents could have heard. My father would have enjoyed those kind words—and my dear old mother might even have believed them!
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with Senator Graham on innumerable occasions in Washington and in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was also privileged to be his boss on a number of occasions when he served with us as Colonel Graham of the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps for several stints during the Surge in Iraq and then while I was the commander in Afghanistan. And I might add that he wasn’t half bad as a subordinate, though he’ll be the first to acknowledge that he needs to continue to work on his pushups.
In truth, Senator Graham is truly dedicated to America’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coastguardsmen—as well as to the men and women of our diplomatic corps and the Central Intelligence Agency, men and women who serve so admirably around the world, seeking to preserve and protect the values and interests so vital to our great nation’s well-being.
Senator Graham is, in short, a devoted patriot, a steadfast supporter of our military, an accomplished Air Force Reserve officer, a terrific wit, and a great guy to have in your corner. Let’s give your senior Senator a hand!
Well, I should confess that, after Senator Graham conveyed the invitation to address this gathering—and twisted my arm to do it—I met with my speechwriter and asked how long I should plan on speaking. “Twenty minutes,” he replied. “Twenty minutes?” I asked. “How can I possibly tell them all I know in 20 minutes?”
“Well, Sir,” he answered, “I’d suggest you speak very slowly.”
I know…that joke is so old that it probably predates your Capitol building. But thanks for laughing. You know the deal…when you reach my stage in life, you’re only as good as the material they give you!
Well, my message to you today is simple: No matter how much contention and partisanship there appears to be in our country, there is far more that unites us as Americans than divides us. And I want to briefly touch this afternoon on some of what I’ve learned over the years about the subject of teamwork—and about my experiences in encouraging folks to put aside differences and work side-by-side toward a shared objective. In truth, that’s the essence of what Ambassador Wilkins has stood for throughout his career, and that’s what the awards that bear his name recognize and promote.
Serving the Common Good
Let me start by talking about serving the common good.
For much of the past decade, I have had the honor of serving in various fronts of the fight against terrorism—in the Balkans, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the greater Middle East. It has been an extraordinary privilege, for military service is, of course, the definitive example of coming together for an important cause, putting aside differences, and sacrificing for the common good.
Many young men and women enlist because they know what they want to fight against. But, when the going gets toughest, as in a hard battle, they come to recognize that they are not just fighting against a particular enemy. They are also fighting for something—for country, of course, for the ideals that bind us together as citizens, as well; but, most of all, for the troopers on their left and right. Ultimately, in the face of real danger and in the heat of a real firefight, our troopers fight for each other, fiercely determined not to let their buddies down in that most special of fraternities, the brotherhood of the close fight.
I was fortunate to witness many inspiring events during the course of my military career. By no means were all such events tough fights. Indeed, one that will always stand out for me was a reenlistment ceremony at the al-Faw Palace in Baghdad on the Fourth of July, 2008. In that event, 1,215 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines raised their right hands with me in what was one of the largest reenlistment ceremonies in history.
It was an awesome moment.
Volunteering to continue to serve our nation—while deployed in combat—is both noble and inspiring. It is clearly a case of seeking to continue to serve a cause larger than self, an act whose value to our country is impossible to calculate. It is motivated by something far beyond money, because no bonus, no matter the size, can adequately compensate for the sacrifices made by our troopers or for the burdens borne by their loved ones. Seeing those men and women recite the oath of enlistment in a combat zone so far from home—and in the former palace of a tyrant overthrown by our troopers—was to witness the sheer power and beauty of what unites us as Americans.
Democracies such as ours are predicated on the necessity of citizens ultimately coming together to resolve their differences through compromise, in a spirit of mutual respect, despite the fact that everyone has his or her own idea of what should be done. As Churchill famously—and, I believe, accurately—observed, “democracy is the worst form of government—except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And we should never lose sight of how rare and wonderful it is to live in a truly democratic country—rare as measured by the historical record, of course, and, even in our own time, rarer than it should be.
When I first entered Iraq for the fight to Baghdad in 2003—as commander of the great 101st Airborne Division—my soldiers and I were often greeted by Iraqis who would say to us: “Thank you, American! We love the United States. We love democracy! What is it?”
Nine years later, the Iraqi people better understand democracy’s promise, but, through hard experience, they also know how truly difficult it is to build and sustain. Indeed, they are experiencing many serious challenges at present. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of brave Iraqis put their lives on the line every day, having made the decision that moving toward a free society, even if by fits and starts, is worth the sacrifice. The same can be said of the Afghan soldiers who fight alongside our troopers and alongside those from coalition nations from around the world, all committed to helping that country combat violent extremists.
None of what we’ve been engaged in since September 2001 has been easy. Nor will it be easy in the future. Indeed, as we often said in each of these endeavors, it is all hard, all the time. But our men and women in uniform, our intelligence professionals, our diplomats, and our aid workers have served magnificently in each endeavor, coming together for a common cause, demonstrating extraordinary teamwork in the performance of missions of great importance to our country and to the world.
At home, in our own country, we often see how hard it is to maintain the level of give and take that democracy ultimately demands. It sometimes seems that a “take no prisoners” approach characterizes the strategy of many on either side of important debates. But, that notwithstanding, we should never lose sight of the historical record and fresh evidence all around us that Americans remain capable of coming together in important endeavors in order to accomplish objectives vital to our national interest.
In fact, over the past decade, we have seen a great story of national unity unfold in response to the events of 9/11. And, if there has been debate over our tactics—and, indeed, some of the strategy—there has nonetheless been harmony in our resolve that terrorism cannot—and will not—stand.
Working together as Americans, we have kept our nation safe. Working closely with our partners overseas, we have kept al-Qa’ida on the run. And, during that decade, al-Qa’ida’s paramount leader, his deputy, and many others throughout the organization and its affiliates have been taken off the battlefield.
Each of you is familiar with the protagonists of this great story. They are the young Americans of all backgrounds and their coalition partners, who, like generations before them, heard their country’s call and answered it selflessly. They have been truly inspirational. Indeed, at countless dusty outposts and operating bases, and on innumerable patrols through marketplaces and bazaars, I have seen our remarkable young men and women in action—as they head out every day under body armor and Kevlar, take to the skies or the seas to support their brothers and sisters on the ground, and carry out the myriad tasks needed to sustain tough campaigns.
In crushing heat and numbing cold—from the Iraqi desert to the peaks of the Hindu Kush—they have exhibited valor, creativity, initiative, and resolve. They have been diplomats as well as warriors, statesmen as well as soldiers. And side by side with them have been those from the Agency I am now privileged to lead and those from the State Department and other organizations. All of them, together with our Coalition teammates, have worked closely with our Iraqi, Afghan, and other partners to try to help them build peaceful, prosperous futures for their people and to help keep America and our allies safe.
New Greatest Generation
In large measure, achievements in the campaigns of the past decade are testament to the skill, energy, and commitment of the members of our nation’s New Greatest Generation—the young Americans who, since 9/11, have faithfully and selflessly joined the ranks of our armed forces, intelligence services, diplomatic corps, and law enforcement agencies.
Like their great-grandparents who endured a depression and won a world war, the members of the New Greatest Generation have responded with courage and purpose to the great challenges of their day. They have earned their place in the long line of patriot-soldiers on which our country has depended. They have demonstrated the willingness to give the last full measure of devotion to a cause that benefits not only America, but all humanity.
Here at home, many of our challenges seem to defy consensus to the same degree that a dangerous adversary stimulates it. But, like the campaign against terror, doesn’t virtually every issue amount to a debate over tactics rather than purpose? Isn’t it our common goal to make our nation even stronger and greater than it already is? The answer to each of those questions, clearly, is “Yes!”
I firmly believe there is something very special about our country. America’s energy, ingenuity, and respect for individual rights and the rule of law give it an endless regenerative capacity. Our nation of nations remains the most desirable place in the world for all who seek a new beginning. Our country is, again, truly blessed and unique, and that is why, as Warren Buffett recently observed, “It has never paid to bet against America.”
If leaders like you foster a climate of partnership and teamwork, those you represent and lead will turn big ideas from your level into reality on the ground; they will work together and be inspired to exercise initiative as engaged citizens. In fact, the climate needed is that reflected in a sign I saw in a company command post in western Baghdad during the Surge. It read: “In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should have been and execute aggressively.”
That is the kind of attitude we want not only in our military units and intelligence agencies, but in every citizen of our wonderful, free society.
Praise for Award Recipients
The recipients of this year’s Wilkins Leadership Awards, James Smith and Ed Sellers, have clearly exhibited the qualities of initiative, teamwork, and engagement. They exemplify the good will of citizens throughout our country who come together to tackle common challenges. They have demonstrated impressive leadership in undertaking truly good work on behalf of their countrymen. They have experienced first hand what Teddy Roosevelt called “the best prize that life has to offer”—working hard at work worth doing. That is, I might add, an experience that I also have enjoyed.
As the Chairman of the Board of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Ed Sellers could have been content with leading a large corporation and providing a great life for his family. He was not. Rather, he chose to give of himself to causes he believes in and that benefit the community at large: the American Red Cross; the ETV Endowment of South Carolina, which benefits this state’s public education broadcasting network; the Palmetto Conservation Foundation; the South Carolina State Chamber of Commerce; and Columbia College. Ed’s exemplary record exemplifies to what civic leadership means in America.
James Smith, an accomplished legislator in the State House, a respected attorney, and a Captain in the Army National Guard, also defines success in life as a function of service to others. In 2007, for example, he deployed to Afghanistan for a year of combat duty—where I suspect he missed more than a few votes in the House. James earned the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantryman’s Badge—not to mention the sincere gratitude of his fellow countrymen. Like Ed, James embodies the civility, integrity, compassion, vision, and courage for which the Wilkins Awards are presented. I should add that, given his combat record, his colleagues on the other side of the aisle are indeed fortunate that James does have a reputation for civility—a quality he also demonstrated in service as Chairman of the Public Policy Committee of the United Way’s Success By 6 initiative and numerous other activities.
Well, in closing, let me note how privileged I feel to have been able to address you today and to help recognize the two great South Carolinians being honored this afternoon. I am, in short, grateful to Senator Graham and to the folks at Furman University for the opportunity to help honor individuals who put service ahead of self, and whose patriotism, generosity, and collaborative spirit serve as examples for us all.
At the end of the day, those of us privileged to be citizens of the United States are of varying political persuasions; we come from different ethnic backgrounds, practice different religions, and live in different corners of a transcontinental country. But, when all is said and done, we are all citizens of what President Lincoln called “the last, best hope of Earth.” We are all Americans. And, if we work together, as the young men and women of America’s New Greatest Generation have since 9/11, we are capable of achieving anything.
Thank all you all very much!