DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I have several personnel announcements to make, and then Admiral Mullen will provide a report on his visit to the Middle East.
Today, I’m announcing that I’ve recommended three officers to the president for senior leadership positions.
I will recommend Vice Admiral William McRaven, who currently heads Joint Special Operations Command, for promotion to a fourth star and for nomination to take charge of U.S. Special Operations Command. He will replace Admiral Eric Olson, who will retire at the completion of his tenure at SOCOM.
I will recommend General James Thurman, currently the commander of Army Forces Command, to be the next commander of United States Forces Korea, replacing General “Skip” Sharp who will retire at the end of his tour.
Finally, I’m recommending Vice Admiral Joe Kernan, my senior military assistant, for the post of deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, replacing Lieutenant General Ken Keen.
We will properly recognize Admiral Olson, General Sharp and General Keen and their decades of public dedicated service at an appropriate time.
The three officers I am recommending today to be their successors have the right mix of military acumen, strategic vision and diplomatic and interagency skills that these posts will require.
Admiral McRaven, a former commander of SEAL Team 3 and Special Operations Command Europe, has led a JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] team that has been ruthlessly and effectively taking the fight to America’s most dangerous and vicious enemies.
General Thurman currently runs the Army’s largest organization, with responsibility for oversight, manning, training and equipping of more than 700,000 soldiers in the continental United States. General Thurman also has significant experience in combat theaters, including service as a division commander in Iraq.
And Joe Kernan returns to SOUTHCOM, where he previously commanded 4th Fleet, the first Navy SEAL to lead a numbered fleet. On a personal note, I’d like to thank Joe for his dedicated service for the past two years in my office. His advice, informed by his background as a special operations warrior, has been invaluable, and he will be sorely missed.
Joe’s successor as senior military assistant will be Lieutenant General John Kelly, who currently leads Marine Forces Reserve and previously commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the 1st MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force], in Anbar province in Iraq. And I look forward to his coming on board later this month.
Before taking questions, I’d — and turning it over to Admiral Mullen, I’d like to note the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, the last living American veteran from World War I. I had the honor of meeting Mr. Buckles almost exactly three years ago at an event here at the Pentagon honoring the World War I generation.
As I said then, we will always be grateful for what these veterans did for their country. And in Mr. Buckles’ case, we are all glad that he had the longevity that he had, enjoyed on this Earth.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Let me start by saying that I fully concur with the senior leader recommendations that you’ve made today. I know each of these officers very well. And I’ve watched them work and lead and fight in some very difficult times. And I know each of them will perform their new duties with the same energy and innovation with which they have served their entire careers.
All of them are great leaders in their own right, and all of them are ready for the challenges you’ve proposed they now take on. The Joint Chiefs and I look forward to working with them and will give them our full support should the president see fit to nominate them and the Senate see fit to confirm them.
If I may, I would like to make mention of my trip last week through the Arabian Gulf region. Though long planned, the trip certainly took on a fresh character in the face of popular unrest and revolt across North Africa and the Arab world. Seven countries and seven days later, I can tell you this: The pace of change and the course of events are moving literally at the speed of Twitter.
But people there were glad to see me. They still want a strong partnership with the United States and with U.S. armed forces specifically. And I believe it was — it is absolutely vital that we look for ways where and when we can to foster those relationships.
I recognize this won’t always be possible. The very preliminary steps we’d taken to begin military dialogue in Libya, for instance, have now rightly been halted. But elsewhere in the region, we find that military partnerships, long-standing and rooted in professionalism, offer a means of communication and even clarity in these uncertain times that other forms of interaction may not yield.
That’s another reason I did not alter my plans to make this trip, quite frankly. I thought it was important to go and to listen. I wanted to gain their perspectives on what is happening and hear directly from them on what plans, if any, they were making.
As you might expect, no two countries’ leaders — military or civilian — are approaching this crisis in quite the same way. Each is guided by his own sense of urgency and domestic politics. But all of them understand the seriousness of the passions driving these protests, and all of them are concerned about the broader regional implications.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Admiral Mullen just mentioned that in Libya Moammar Gadhafi is waging war on his own people, as you put it. What — is U.S. military intervention realistic? And what specific kinds of options are you considering? Could you describe, for example, the possibility of a no-fly zone or arming rebel forces?
So those are the actions that we have taken at this point. We’re obviously looking at a lot of options and contingencies. No decisions have been made on any other actions.
Our job is to give the president the broadest possible decision space and options, and to go into the things that we’re thinking about, the options that we’re providing, I think, have the potential to narrow his decision space. And I have no intention of doing that.
(To the chairman.) I don’t know if you want to add anything.
ADM. MULLEN: No, sir.
Q: Do you think it’s likely? Do you think it’s likely?
ADM. MULLEN: I wouldn’t speculate on that at all, Jim.
Q: (inaudible) taken up?
SEC. GATES: Presumably. That’s more the State Department.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you give us your assessment of the situation on the ground? How bad is it? Can the rebels take Tripoli? Are thousands dying?
SEC. GATES: Well, the — I think the honest answer, David, is that we don’t know in that respect, in terms of the number of casualties. In terms of the potential capabilities of the opposition, we’re in the same realm of speculation, pretty much, as everybody else. I haven’t seen anything that would give us a better read on the number of rebels that have been killed than you have. And I think it remains to be seen how effectively military leaders who have defected from Gadhafi’s forces can organize the opposition in the country. And we are watching that unfold, as you are.
Q: And can you say about Yemen, just real quickly, about the return of the cleric who’s a mentor to Osama bin Laden, in the wake of the anti-American comments from the president? I mean, how concerned are you about — he’s called for an Islamic state in Yemen. How concerned are you about what’s unfolding in Yemen right now?
SEC. GATES: I haven’t seen the press reports about the return of the cleric, so I’m not in a position to respond to that. But we are watching the situation in Yemen very closely, and it is a matter of concern.
I don’t know if you want to comment, if you know more than I do.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I — Yemen actually, I mean, has been an area that we have been focused on for a long time, and concerned about essentially the fertile ground for terrorists who have actually both been emboldened, they’ve gotten — in al-Qaida specifically, gotten much more potent. And certainly as this — as the uncertainty continues there, we’re very focused on that.
And as — I guess almost as each piece continues to unfold, we’re just watching it very carefully. Whether this guy will have, you know, the kind of impact that some think he might, I just don’t know.
Q: Would you say, just a follow-up: How do you explain the anti-American comment from an ally — I mean, from a — from someone who’s been very supportive of the United States until now who said it was Washington and Israel who were fomenting revolution in the Middle East? He said that today.
SEC. GATES: I haven’t seen it.
ADM. MULLEN: I haven’t either. I haven’t seen what —
SEC. GATES: We’ve actually been in meetings — (laughter) — not listening to the news.
Q: Sir, the Air Force issued its tanker contract last week. And I’m curious, from your perspective, if you’ve heard anything from the vendors about whether the department will be able to move forward with it, or if there could be another round of potential difficulties with the companies involved?
SEC. GATES: I have not heard anything. I believe that both of the offerers were briefed yesterday, Monday. We think that this was a very transparent, forthright process. Companies obviously have the opportunities, under the law, to protest, but I think the view in this building is that there are no grounds for a — for a valid protest.
Q: Secretary and Admiral Mullen, if I could ask a big-picture question about what’s going on in the Middle East: We’ve had relatively peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia where people seem to want democracy, less optimistic pictures in Libya and Bahrain where things have gotten more violent.
Over the long term, what are the risks and potential rewards for U.S. strategic interests in the region? What’s it — what do you see, over the long term, evolving for the U.S. as a result of all these changes — if you could speak a little bit about that?
SEC. GATES: Well, I’m — I guess I would have to say that I’m an optimist about these changes. I think, first of all, these — the revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt and the protests elsewhere that are leading to reforms in a number of governments I think are an extraordinary setback for al-Qaida. It basically gives the lie to al-Qaida’s claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments is through extremist violence. And the peoples of several countries in the region are proving this not to be the case.
I also think that it is a — it is, in some respects now and perhaps even more so in the future, a major setback for Iran, because the contrast between the behavior of the militaries in Tunisia and in Egypt and, except for a brief period of violence, in Bahrain, contrast vividly with the savage repression that the Iranians have undertaken against anybody who dares to demonstrate in their countries.
Now, we — all of this clearly has to play out. And it could take months and probably years before these situations stabilize and we know if we have durable, democratic governments in some of these countries. But a process of change has begun after decades of the political arrangements in these countries being frozen. And the prospect for that change, particularly if it is carried out without violence, as has been the case in several of these countries, and gives rise to Democratic governments, I think it is a gain, first of all, for the peoples of the region, but ultimately a gain for everybody.
I don’t know if you want to add —
ADM. MULLEN: I think I share the — I share the optimism. It’s obviously a very difficult time. As I was in seven different countries last week, I was reminded — and I think it’s very important to discriminate between countries.
So I would not put, for instance, Bahrain and Libya in the same category at all. In fact, there was violence. The king and the crown prince immediately stepped back for that, called for a dialogue. Those were very positive steps. And they are now trying to work their way through how to make that dialogue work. And I think they recognize what the requirement is.
And one of the reasons I share the optimism is because in each country, it is clearly about the people of that country. It has — it has not been about the relationship — you know, the external relationships; it’s been about change inside those countries, which are so important.
And certainly, I think, you know, in the long run, all of us are going to have to adjust, you know, how — what these relationships mean. But, you know, on balance, I’m optimistic that there is a chance for stability and opportunity that just didn’t exist as recently as four weeks ago.
And I would just like to reemphasize also what the secretary said about al-Qaida. I think it’s a fundamental, almost — it’s not a defeat, but certainly it is — it is a lesson or it is a message that completely undermines the strategy of al-Qaida.
Q: Admiral Mullen, can you talk a little bit about, as the result of your trip last week, what adjustments do you feel that the U.S. military needs to be making right now, needs to be working on because of these changes and events, in terms of the U.S. military’s relationship with any of these countries?
And Secretary Gates, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that as well.
ADM. MULLEN: I’m not sure about, you know, some significant adjustments right away. I think it’s really important to stay engaged with them and to, as I said, listen to what their concerns are. You know, they actually — you know, they want us to stay with them mil-to-mil. They don’t want to see, you know, the assistance immediately cut off. They want a chance in their own countries to work on this kind of change specifically. I mean, I’ll — I’ve engaged, you know, my counterpart in Egypt a number of times. They greatly appreciate the relationship. They’re working their way through this, and they appreciate the support.
But it is really for them to work through this, and they want to sustain the relationship. We may have to adjust it over time, but they’re certainly not calling for any significant change right now.
And so I think — I think it’s beyond continuing with most of these governments, the relationships that we have had for many years. I think we just have to take our time and look at it.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercise is ongoing now in Korea. So can you tell us more detail about these exercises? And I have a second question. In case —
SEC. GATES: One to a customer. (Chuckles.) The — I’ll just say broadly, this is part of a series of exercises that go on all the time between U.S. and Republic of Korea forces. They are part of a program of making sure that we have the capabilities and we have the skills to be able to respond to various contingencies. We’ve seen over the last year provocations by the North that have — make the importance of these exercises, I think, even more clear.
I don’t know if you want to add —
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I would add is we’ve had challenges certainly over the last year — so significant challenges. And I’ve been struck at how important the long-term relationship has been, how immediate the coming together on how we should lead ahead; how we are able to do that so quickly because of this relationship, certainly mil-to-mil but also between the two countries.
And that underpins, you know, a long-term strategy, which, I think, is headed in the right direction.
Q: You have said that you’re optimistic about the changes in the Arab world and you think that they are leading to reforms. Don’t you think that having similar changes in some countries like Jordan or Saudi Arabia could put, like, U.S. interests in danger or in jeopardy?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don’t think so. We obviously have very strong and long-standing relationships with both of those countries, friendships. And I — both kings have undertaken reforms over time.
There is clearly a need for continuation of those efforts. And we’re supportive of them. But I think our relationships with both countries are very deep and go back a very long time, and I would be surprised if any changes in those countries of the kind we’re talking about would significantly negatively affect our relationships.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you’ve got plenty of air assets in Italy for any possibility of a no-fly zone operation. Would you think it would be sensible to have a carrier also to increase your flexibility? Do you have any plans to move a carrier to the Mediterranean?
SEC. GATES: Well, as I said at the outset, we’re looking at all options in a variety of contingencies.