Remarks by Director David H. Petraeus at the Kuwait-America Foundation Gala Dinner
Remarks by Central Intelligence Agency Director David H. Petraeus as delivered at the Kuwait-America Foundation “Sowing the Future” Gala Dinner
March 11, 2012
Well, good evening to you all. Salam Alaykum, shukran jazeelan. Thank you, Shaykh Salem al-Sabah, for that great, gracious introduction. That’s one of those that you say you wish your parents had been here to hear it. I think my father would have enjoyed it, and my dear mother might have believed it! But I do appreciate the very warm welcome—especially because I’m just the warm-up act for Nicole Kidman and Lynda Carter! Talk about a tough assignment!
But it is great to be here. And, by the way, I share the Ambassador’s view on what can be achieved at dinner parties—especially if you can assemble the kind of dinner party that the Shaykh has assembled here. I also agree with the sentiment expressed by Somerset Maugham, one who had a particular love for such dinner parties as this. He famously said that “one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” Given the delicious first course here, we are already not following that first bit of advice, as we are eating very well indeed—and as for my remarks, well, I’ll let you be the judge!
Well, it truly is a privilege and a pleasure to be here tonight to help celebrate a very worthy cause but also to celebrate an especially close relationship—indeed a special relationship—the bond of friendship between Kuwait and the United States. And we also are here to express our deep appreciation for the great work that you, Ambassador, and your wife, and the Kuwait-America Foundation have done for so many worthy causes. I offer these observations noting, as the Ambassador did, that I have been honored to have spent considerable time in Kuwait on innumerable occasions in various positions going back many years. I have, in fact, experienced the special relationship between our two countries during some particularly “sporty” times.
Now, in preparing for this evening, I learned that last year Ben Affleck delivered remarks at this event. As you know, he is committed to many important charitable causes. In fact, we had Ben at the CIA recently, with his wife, to help with the annual Combined Federal Campaign fundraising drive. And his visit reminded me of an experience I had in his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago. You see, my wife and I were there for our son’s graduation from MIT and his commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army. But we were also in the midst of buying a house near here, by the way, at the time. My wife, of course, had handled all of the process to that point, but I needed to sign some forms. So, en route to the ceremony, we stopped at the Boston branch of our bank for what we thought would be a handful of signatures.
At the time, I headed US Central Command and had a fairly high profile—and I was on certain hitlists—so I had a large detail of “Boston’s finest,” along with their motorcycles, squad cars, and SUVs. I also had my military personal security detail and the communications team and some aides. And while the heavily armed officers tried to blend in while milling around outside the bank, it just didn’t quite work. Somehow, as I was busy signing countless forms, the rumor began to spread outside that someone important was inside. In fact, the rumor was that none other than Ben Affleck himself was inside the bank. I am not making this up!
Meanwhile, the crowd grew…and grew...and grew. And my protective force started to become concerned that they might need protection. Anyway, when the paperwork was finally complete and we finally exited, the crowd let out the most dejected sigh imaginable—as if all the air had been sucked out of Boston.
Clearly, the crowd realized that I was not Ben Affleck. In fact, as I told Ben when he was at the CIA Headquarters two months ago, they must have mistaken me for Matt Damon. Or was it Brad Pitt? Or Keith Urban?
Actually, I was in uniform and the crowd was very kind and actually applauded, even though I know they’d hoped to see Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner appear—not me and my wife!
But back to this special event. And, again, what a very, very special audience and evening it is. As I mentioned, I’ve been truly fortunate to have had a long association with Kuwaiti military and political leaders and members of the royal family, all of whom have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States for many decades. I was in Kuwait shortly after the liberation in March 1991, and I also deployed later in the 1990s, for Operation Desert Spring, where we prepared for what we thought might be the “Fight Tonight” that thankfully never materialized and trained with Kuwaiti units. And, of course as the Ambassador mentioned, I’ll never forget the privilege of commanding the 101st Airborne Division in March of 2003, when we deployed to Kuwait, assembled at great camps in the desert, and then flew over and drove through the berm for the fight to Baghdad. A year after that, I departed Iraq through the same route, with a very welcome return to Kuwait. And, in subsequent years, I had the privilege of returning again many times, and of meeting with His Highness, the Amir, when I held various military commands. He and his senior officials were always most gracious, engaging, supportive, and generous. And those visits to Kuwait, along with my meetings with Kuwaiti leaders here in Washington and elsewhere, have reinforced for me the enduring strength of our bilateral relationship and the depth of our common interests and, indeed, shared sacrifices.
As I noted, in 1991 I was in Kuwait not long after the liberation, and I saw how the Kuwaitis had suffered amid the destruction by Saddam’s army. I returned later that decade several times and often visited the National Memorial Museum, which has, of course, many powerful exhibits. One portion is dedicated to the fallen American and Coalition servicemembers—and it’s great, by the way, to see here this evening so many Ambassadors from the countries that made up the great Coalition. We are grateful to the Kuwaiti people for remembering those who gave their last full measure of devotion to help liberate a country that had been so brutally occupied. That museum and the equally powerful al-Qurain Martyrs’ Museum also remind us of the valor of the many Kuwaitis who fought against Saddam’s forces and of the hundreds of Kuwaitis who still to this day remain missing. As many here know, I’m sure, the al‑Qurain Museum was established in a large compound that was besieged by Saddam’s forces and heavily damaged, and part of it has been left much as it was found when liberated—that is to say, in ruins. It now stands as a vital reminder for future generations to see what the Kuwaitis went through—and what US and Coalition forces rescued them from—in 1991.
I have also been privileged to have met some Kuwaiti heroes over the years, including now-retired Brigadier General Salem Masoud al-Sorour. When the Iraqis invaded in August 1990, he was a Colonel leading the 35th Armored Brigade, and although he and his men had only hours to prepare, they raced their tanks to the outskirts of Kuwait City. At the outer ring road, they took on two divisions of Iraq’s battle-hardened Republican Guards. Heavily outnumbered, they inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqis. Throughout the night, the 35th Brigade held firm; but, ultimately, the next day they had to withdraw to Saudi Arabia to re-arm and re-equip—and to prepare to fight another day. Al-Sorour remains a hero for delaying the advance of those two Iraqi Divisions and buying precious time for countless civilians to get out of harm’s way.
In returning to Kuwait periodically since 1991, like many here, I have seen extraordinary progress and development as Kuwait has rebuilt and expanded and expanded some more. Today, of course, new towers continue to add to Kuwait City’s stunning skyline. New commercial and residential buildings are among the most modern in the world; unique museums and recreational facilities are attracting growing tourism; and Kuwait City, its airport, its industries, its sea ports, and its universities have become the envy of much of the region and, indeed, the world.
Kuwait’s generosity is also admired worldwide as well—and certainly America has been among the recipients. Among the many reasons I’m pleased to be here tonight, in fact, is to relay my gratitude for Kuwait’s kindness, support, and logistical assistance over the years. No country could have been a better host to our forces. Indeed, for two decades, Kuwait has been graciously supplying our troops there with fuel, food, and other essential services—and when I say supply, I mean giving it to us for free. And, again, in another great example of Kuwaiti assistance—just the latest—as our coalition military personnel were leaving Iraq late last year, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior streamlined the customs process and kept it operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that our troops could get back to their families for the holidays. And many thousands of family reunions were facilitated for Christmas that would not otherwise have been possible.
It’s that spirit of generosity, of course, that is present here tonight. It is that spirit that the Kuwait-America Foundation and other donors in Kuwait have exemplified in support of numerous vital charitable causes. The Foundation, originally established in 1991 in part to express gratitude for American sacrifices in the Gulf War, is but one expression of the generosity and kindred ties—but it is a hugely important expression. Among the Foundation’s causes over the years that are particularly close to my heart is support of America’s wounded warriors. Last year, for example, through its “Enduring Support” campaign, the Foundation raised nearly $3 million to benefit the USO’s Operation Enduring Care, a $100-million initiative overall to help our injured veterans lead full and productive lives. And I can assure you, Shaykh and Shayka al-Sabah, that all of us thank you for that.
Moreover, as you know, the Kuwait-America Foundation has active programs in a variety of other countries as well, and I will highlight those in Iraq and Afghanistan because of my personal experiences with those programs as the coalition commander in each of those countries. The Foundation has, for example, raised millions of dollars to broaden access in those countries to education, especially for young girls, and to improve health care and to make it more accessible to the people. And, in its campaign in 2005—the first of these dinners, I think—the Foundation also made great strides in helping Iraqi refugees return home to help rebuild their country.
The Foundation’s theme this year, “Sowing the Future,” recognizes a remarkable effort to empower women by expanding microfinancing opportunities to bring greater stability and economic growth to the Middle Eastern nations that are facing political and socioeconomic upheaval. And, given the events of the Arab Spring, the need is particularly acute this year. Microfinance has improved the lives of millions of poor people throughout the developing world and is expanding the social safety nets of savings, insurance, and pension funds. And this dinner will help with that cause enormously.
For women—especially in rural areas—there is often a lack of basic financial services. And it is to address this issue that the Foundation’s partnership with Women’s World Banking is proceeding, boosting microfinance opportunities in the Middle East and serving as a critically important external jumpstart to serve as a force multiplier for recovery and growth. I’ve often seen, in fact, that economic progress and improving political stability are not just a function of improving security conditions at the local level—but also a function of ensuring that men and women have opportunities to then improve their economic lot, and that their children have improved access to education and healthcare.
The Foundation’s efforts are, in short, hugely significant initiatives, and I ask that you join me in giving the Kuwait-America Foundation and Women’s World Banking a round of applause for making a true difference at the grassroots level in countries that have long suffered from underdevelopment.
Again, Kuwait and America are, as I noted earlier, inextricably bound by shared sacrifice in defeating aggression; we are also bound by our shared interest in safeguarding peace, and by our shared service together as a force for progress. Our partnership has accomplished a great deal in recent decades, and it is my hope—and yours, too, I know—that it continue to do so well into the future.
So, this evening, again, I want to say “thank you” to the Kuwait-America Foundation for enormous generosity that benefits countless people around the world and that exemplifies the spirit that our countries share of giving to those who are less fortunate than we are. And, of course, I want to express my gratitude to His Excellency, Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah, and Shayka Rima for allowing me to be part of this great event. You have been, as always, and as your country has always been for our men and women in uniform, immensely kind and gracious hosts, great friends of our United States, and compassionate, indeed inspirational, leaders of innumerable important endeavors here and around the world!
Shukran. Thank you very much!