By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense
SOUTHWEST ASIA, April 25, 2013 - On the last full day of his inaugural trip to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with troops at an air base here and answered questions on topics ranging from budget cuts and tuition assistance to the Asia-Pacific rebalance and Iran.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visits troops at an air base in Southwest Asia, April 25, 2013. Hagel thanked the troops for their service and answered various questions including the expected effects of sequestration on the Air Force. (DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
About 200 soldiers, sailors and airmen from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing stood at attention as the secretary, in a blue shirt open at the collar, greeted them and thanked them and their families for their service to the nation, and for giving him the privilege of being part of their team.
“I don’t have to tell you the kind of world we live in today -- the complications and the dangers,” Hagel told them. “You’re a very big part of helping keep our world secure, safe and stable. It’s not easy, but it’s worth doing.”
The secretary said he’d had an interesting five days in the Middle East.
“Always, it’s important to come out and see firsthand and listen carefully and closely to the men and women who are doing the job,” he said. “I very much appreciated this time in your area to get a little closer to what’s going on and to get connected better with what you’re doing and how I can help you.”
When Hagel asked the troops if they had advice for the secretary of defense, an Army sergeant from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, asked about DOD’s recent suspension and subsequent reinstatement of military tuition assistance. Hagel said tuition assistance -- which helps hundreds of thousands of service members pay for a college education -- is a priority and will continue. But in the first stroke of abrupt and severe budget cuts required by law of the Defense Department, he said, the department had to make some tough decisions, and the readiness of men and women on the front lines took priority over tuition assistance.
“No. 1 is to support you in your mission in every way we can,” he added. “We won’t cut that.” In March, the department announced that it would restore tuition assistance for all services.
An airman asked Hagel how the military services, especially the Air Force, would fare in the department’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, announced as part of the strategic guidance issued last year.
“We are unwinding our major combat presence in Afghanistan, and we have unwound our presence in Iraq,” the secretary said. Based on continual assessments taken in response to changing dangers, assets, interests and allies, President Barack Obama and the DOD leadership have begun to rebalance more assets to the Asia-Pacific, Hagel said, “which I think is exactly right.”
All services, including the Air Force, he added, “will continue to have very significant roles in that.”
“We will shift in varying ways presence and operations, depending on the threat [and] depending on how we want to project power, and that is all part of a continual assessment.”
Next, an Air Force lieutenant from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron deployed from Beale Air Force Base in California asked about the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Iran.
“We are employing all the tools that wise, great powers employ when dealing with issues, challenges and dangers,” the secretary said, adding that the United States and the international community, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, are working through diplomatic channels and using economic sanctions in that determined effort.
“The economic sanctions against Iran are the most effective, most international, most penetrating economic sanctions that I think have ever been employed against a country,” he said. “And we do know by every metric applied that it is doing significant damage to Iran’s economy.”
The general approach, Hagel noted, is to use every available tool. These include the threat of a military option and the building of international and regional consensus on the way to deal with Iran.
“You take the entire universe of these capabilities and assets and you focus them,” Hagel told the service members. “The military option in these situations is always an option, but I believe and I know [President Barack Obama] believes that should be the last option.”
The secretary said he doesn’t know if the efforts being applied in dealing with Iran will change their attitude about moving toward developing and potentially delivering a nuclear weapon. But, he added, “we have the time, we have the assets, we continue to build international consensus, ... and we are working toward that.”
Tonight, on the last evening of his Middle East trip, Hagel will meet and then dine with Gen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces.
The secretary’s Middle East trip, which began April 20 and will end April 26, has taken the secretary to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to discuss with military and government leaders common issues and interests in the region.
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