3:20 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you. And good afternoon to everyone. I want to thank Secretary Austin for welcoming the Vice President and me to the Pentagon today. It’s good to be back.
Before I begin, I have some welcome news that the Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist, Loujain al-Hathlou — -loul — excuse me, l-o-u-l — from prison. She’s a powerful advocate women’s rights, and releasing her was the right thing to do.
It’s been a busy day. Earlier, I announced steps we’ve taken to impose costs on those responsible for the military coup in Burma. And I’ve just concluded a briefing with the civilian and military leadership where I laid out my national security priorities. And I want to share the message directly with the Department of Defense staff all around the world. Because each of you — each of you — whether you’re newly enlisted, a career officer, a non-commissioned officer, or a civilian policy expert, you’re essential to how we project our strength around the world, defend America’s interests, and advance American leadership in the world.
So often, our Armed Forces and the Department of Defense staff are how the rest of the world encounters America. And you all know as well as anyone that our country is safer and stronger when we lead not just with the example of our power, but with the power of our example.
As your Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to use force to defend the vital interests of the American people and our allies around the world when necessary. The central, indispensable mission of the Department of Defense is to deter aggression from our enemies and, if required, to fight and win wars to keep America safe.
But I believe force should be a tool of last resort, not first. I understand the full weight of what it means to ask young, proud Americans to stand in the breach. As was referenced by the Secretary, my son Beau served in Iraq for a year. I’m the first President in 40 years, I’m told, who had a son or daughter who served in a warzone.
So I know what it’s like. Being Commander-in-Chief is an enormous responsibility and one that I will never take lightly or easily.
I will work with Secretary Austin and leaders around the world to bring a responsible end — a responsible end to wars that have dragged on for far too long, while continuing to ensure that terrorist threats cannot endanger the security of the American people.
I also know that you are essential to the work of our diplomacy — not only as the ultimate guarantor of our security, but as diplomats yourselves.
I got to know Secretary Austin when he was serving as commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq. It wasn’t just his excellent military leadership the many times I met him there, and his strategy; he was a consummate diplomat as well. He worked closely with our ambassador to build relationships with both civilian and military leaders of our coalition partners. Because we are better able to project our power when we’re amplifying our strength through our alliances, it was so important.
There is no aspect of our agenda of the 21st century leadership where the women and men of the Defense Department do not have a role — whether it’s helping curb the pandemic here at home and around the world; or addressing the real threats of climate change that already is costing us billions in impacts on our bases, on our national security; or being part of an ongoing fight for racial justice.
You are essential to how we must rethink and reprioritize our security to meet the challenges of this century, not the last.
We need to take on the dangers and opportunities of emerging technologies, enhance our capabilities in cyberspace, ensure that we are positioned to lead in a new era of competition, from deep sea to outer space. And we need to meet
the growing challenges posed by China to keep the peace and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally.
Today, I was briefed on a new DOD-wide China task force that Secretary Austin is standing up to look at our strategy and operational concepts, technology, and force posture, and so much more.
The task force will work quickly, drawing on civilian and
military experts across the Department, to provide, within the next few months, recommendations to
Senator [Secretary] Austin on key priorities and decision points so that we can chart a strong path forward on China-related matters. It will require a whole-of-government effort, bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and strong alliances and partnerships.
That’s how we’ll meet the China challenge and ensure the American people win the competition of the future.
You know, to the incredible individuals who serve in our Armed Forces: You are unquestionably part of the finest fighting force in the history of the world. You’re warriors. The work you do each and every day is vital to ensuring the American people — your families, friends, and loved ones — are able to live in peace and security and growing prosperity.
And for those of you who raise your hands and sign up to wear the uniform of the United States: We owe you an incredible debt.
I’ve said for many years, less than one percent of Americans do what you do: put yourself on the line for the rest of the 99 percent of the Americans you represent. The 99 percent of us owe you. We owe it to you to keep the faith with our sacred obligation to properly prepare and equip you when we send you into harm’s way, and to care for you and your families, both while you are deployed and after you return home.
You’re incredible heroes and incredible patriots. I will never, ever dishonest you — dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do. That goes for our civilian professionals as well as the career military.
As I’ve said, this is personal for me. The Biden family is a military family. We learned firsthand some of what your loved ones experienced when Beau was deployed to Iraq for a year with his unit in the Delaware National Guard. We dealt with the stress of his absence and the daily joys — from the daily joys of life. And we worried constantly about his safe return. We felt overwhelming pride in his courage and his patriotism.
You are all the best our country has to offer. You live by a creed of selfless sacrifice. And for many of you, the journey to service has not been easy.
February is Black History Month, as the Vice President pointed out. Before we leave today, Vice President Harris and I are going to visit the hall honoring the long history of black Americans fighting for this country, even when their contributions were not always recognized or honored appropriately.
But those contributions have nevertheless helped push our country toward greater equality. From the bravery of the free and enslaved descendants of Africans who fought with the colonial forces in our revolution; to the black regiments that joined to fight for the Union and for their own freedom in the Civil War; to the Buffalo soldiers, including Henry O. Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point; and Cathay Williams, the first African American woman — Cathay — who enlisted in the United States Army.
Imagine the incredible love it must have taken for the proud Tuskegee Airmen to fly more than 15,000 sorties in battle, when their own freedom was not fully realized in their own country.
Imagine the determination of Roscoe Robinson, who started at West Point one year before Harry Truman issued the order to officially desegregate the Armed Forces, and who rose to become the first African American four-star general.
Imagine the bravery of the 22 African Americans awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in the Vietnam War while struggling for civil rights at home was continuing.
It’s all part of a long history of barrier-breaking service.
Right now, more than 40 percent of our active-duty forces are people of color. And it’s long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our force is reflected at every level of this Department, including our Secretary of Defense.
This organization thrives and succeeds because of our people. So the final point I’d like to make today is to give you my personal commitment that this administration — from myself and the Vice President Harris to Secretary Austin on down — is dedicated to ensuring that every single person is treated with dignity and respect.
That’s why we moved so quickly to overturn the discriminary — discriminatory ban on transgender service, and why General Austin’s first memo was a directive to take sexual assault in the military seriously.
Every single person, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or religious background, deserves to feel safe in the ranks and to have their contributions valued.
It’s on all of us to stand up, to speak out when you see someone being abused. This is an organization that’s defined American — excuse me, defeated American enemies on land, sea, and air, and been defined by the way we treat others.
So I know this is not beyond us, not if each of us makes this a priority as well.
So, thank you for welcoming us, Secretary Austin. It’s good to be back in the Pentagon. I wish I could meet more of you in person today, but I look forward to spending more time with you in all the places you serve around the world.
I know this is the honor of my lifetime. The honor of my lifetime is to serve as your Commander-in-Chief.
Thank you for what you do for this country. May God bless you and protect you, and may God protect our troops deployed around the world, every single one of you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
END 3:31 P.M. EST