Atlantic Council Awards Dinner
Speakers: General David Petraeus, Commander, U.S. Central Command
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS:  Well, good evening and thank you all for that very kind welcome.  General Jones, thanks for the kind introduction and thanks especially for recognizing my wife, Holly.  She has, indeed, been father as well as mother for five of the last seven years and done a heck of a lot more over the 35 years – 35 great years – that we’ve been married, since meeting at West Point.  I do want you to know it was a blind date that caused me to meet the superintendent’s daughter.  (Laughter.)

If I could in turn, General Jones, I want to thank you for the tremendous work that you have done – that you did in four decades in uniform, that you then did as the chairman of this great council and also as the special envoy for Mid-East security and that, of course, you’re now doing as the national security advisor.  I think I can speak for everyone here in saying that our country is fortunate to have someone with your experience, intellect, leadership ability and judgment in the West Wing of the White House at such a critical time.  Thanks for all that you have done.  (Applause.)

And before going further, I also want to add my congratulations to the other honorees tonight, and especially, frankly, to President Bush and Chancellor Kohl and the very well-deserved recognition they will receive this evening.  Generations of citizens around the world remain grateful to them for the critical roles they played in helping to bring the Cold War to an end, and it is great to see them being saluted this evening as we also celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 60th anniversary of NATO.  (Applause.)

I know you’re out there somewhere, Mr. President, but these lights are a little bit glaring.  (Chuckles.)  Actually, as I do look out or try to look out at the audience tonight, I see an extraordinary number of individuals who helped provide the leadership that guided us through the decades of the Cold War – not just American leadership, either, but from both sides of the Atlantic.  And seeing them, I thought it might be fun to recall a story from the good old days, from the time before the wall came down and the Warsaw Pact collapsed.

Some of you will remember the summer of 1980, in fact, when the Soviet Union proudly hosted the Moscow Olympics.  The Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, was, despite advanced age and poor health, determined to give the speech that would welcome the world to Moscow in the 1980 summer games.  As the story goes, the big moment had arrived.  The stadium was full and the crowd was ready.  Brezhnev was helped out of his chair and supported by an aide under either elbow as he moved to the massive podium set up at Central Lenin Stadium.

His aides placed his hands on either side of the podium, put on his reading glasses, opened his speech to the first page and stepped back.  Gripping the podium hard, Brezhnev looked down, studied the page intently and proclaimed, “Ooh.”  Hearing this, his aides rushed forward, fearing that he was going into cardiac arrest.  Brezhnev saw them, straightened up, motioned them back, refocused, looked down intently, re-gripped the podium and again groaned, “Ooooh.”  (Laughter.)

Horrified, the aides once more began to move forward.  Just then, Brezhnev’s speechwriter shooed them out of the way, moved to the Soviet President and whispered in his ear, Mr. President, that’s the Olympic logo, the speech starts here.  (Laughter, applause.)  Those were the days, weren’t they?  (Laughter.)  Well, thanks for laughing.  You know the deal.  I’m only as good as the material they give me.  (Laughter.)  Needless to say, I am most grateful for the honor accorded me this evening by the Council.

I hasten to add, however, that I can only accept this award, inasmuch as I do so, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of troopers who, day after day, don Kevlar helmets and body armor, strap themselves into a cockpit or take to the sea and perform complex missions against tough enemies in challenging conditions to do what our country has asked of them.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Of course, behind the tremendous performance of these troopers from all the nations involved is the commitment of countries and international organizations to important missions.

And tonight, I’d like to underscore very briefly, the importance of the commitment of NATO, the alliance this council celebrates, to our vitally important mission in Afghanistan.  In signing on to support operations in Afghanistan, NATO nations signaled their recognition that transnational extremism poses a threat to all of us.  In so doing, NATO committed its resources, its institutions and its expertise in cooperative defense endeavors, built over 60 years of partnership, to the international effort to ensure that extremists cannot re-establish safe havens in Afghanistan like those from which they launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in 9/11.

Yet, despite many accomplishments and the alliance’s best efforts, the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating in some areas of the country.  In the view of some commentators, this has called into question NATO’s very ability and will to address today’s complex, transnational threats and to work effectively as part of a broader coalition in an effort that requires sustained, substantial commitment.  Afghanistan has thus emerged as a critical challenge for NATO, and the alliance now faces a very urgent moment.

I offer that observation while noting that, with the recent announcement of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with the conduct of the NATO summit earlier this month, new resources have been pledged and new resolve has been demonstrated.  Indeed, the United States and other NATO nations have committed substantially more troopers and additional resources to ensure that we can achieve progress in Afghanistan.  As the additional elements begin deploying, we are working hard to ensure the unity of effort that is so vital in multilateral operations.

We recently dual-hatted General McKiernan, the NATO commander, making him the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well as the NATO ISAF commander.  And in line with guidance from the recent summit, we’re working to complement the coalition train-and-equip mission with a NATO training mission in Afghanistan, just as we did with success in Iraq during General Jones’s time as SACEUR, I might add.  These and other initiatives are intended to ensure that, far from being Americanized, our campaign in Afghanistan will continue to be an alliance and coalition effort.

That statement reflects clear understanding by all in the U.S. chain that progress in the effort in Afghanistan will require continued cooperation and collaboration by all engaged in it.  Please let me be clear about my personal view on this, for having served in NATO assignments at many ranks, from lieutenant to lieutenant general, I am a huge believer in the importance of the alliance.  As difficult as it may be, at times, to work with men and women who wear the uniforms of different countries who come from different cultures and who speak different languages, working together is vitally necessary, as all in this room appreciate.

Winston Churchill was right when he observed that the only thing worse than having allies is not having them.  (Applause.)  I thus applaud vigorously NATO’s commitment to confront the extremist threat that the global community faces.  This commitment reflects a very important recognition – that a coalition of allies standing strong together and working side-by-side can overcome a challenge that is too big and too complex for any one country to handle on its own.  And I applaud the tremendous work of the tens of thousands of troopers, North American and European, as well as those from other continents, whose skill, commitment and sacrifice over the course of our many collective efforts have been so awe-inspiring.

I can assure you that is has been the greatest of privileges to have soldiered alongside such troopers in missions of enormous importance to our individual countries and the world.  And it is similarly a great privilege to join you tonight in honoring the great work that NATO, its member states, its people and this council continue to do.  Thank you very much.

Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.