November 20, 2021
Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Middle East Security at the Manama Dialogue (As Delivered)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III
Thank you very much, and good morning. John, thanks for that kind introduction. And let me thank His Majesty King Hamad, and Crown Prince Salman, and the wonderful people of Bahrain for their warm hospitality. I'm really glad to be back in Bahrain. And it's good to be back at IISS, which does so much to deepen our dialogue on global security. And it's especially good to be here at the Manama Dialogue, despite all the challenges of the pandemic.
Now, I last spoke to IISS in Singapore in July, and I'm relieved that I seem to have done well enough to rate a return invite.
Back in July, I spoke about the strategic imperative of partnership, and I'd like to return to that theme today. I'd also like to lay out a broader, shared vision of 21st-century security in the Middle East—because over my many years in this region, I've learned that we can do so much more when we come together than when we let ourselves be split apart.
Just look at the new relationships being forged today by Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, and others—opening up new opportunities for shared responsibility, shared prosperity, security cooperation, and people-to-people ties. And I'm pleased that our Unified Command Plan has rightfully, shifted Israel to CENTCOM's area of responsibility.
And all that just underscores the changes that can take place in this region. And it shows the growing power of partnership in today's world—one woven closer and closer together by technology and trade.
In 2001, my great friend and mentor, the late Colin Powell, underscored how profoundly America is linked to the 21st-century world. As he said, "There is no country in the world that does not touch us. We are a country of countries, with a citizen in our ranks from every land. We are attached by a thousand cords to the world at large—to its teeming cities, to its remotest regions, to its oldest civilizations, to its newest cries for freedom."
And in that world of many cords, we face a range of common challenges—including lingering conflicts, and 21st-century threats that can cross borders with the ease and fury of a storm.
So ladies and gentlemen, those common perils demand common action. I learned that lesson in this region, wearing the cloth of the United States Army. And my years in uniform taught me that a nation that tries to go it alone is a nation that is less secure.
Now, that isn't some abstract piece of political-science theory. It's hard-won experience from the field of battle. When I commanded CENTCOM, we relied on a coalition of 60 countries.
And I know this region. My country has invested deeply here. I've led troops into battle here.
And I care a great deal about its security, its people, and its future.
Now, I'm here as a representative of the Biden Administration. But for decades, American administrations from both parties have recognized the profound importance of our partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa.
We do crucial work together with our friends in this region—to deter aggression from any quarter, to disrupt terrorist networks, and to maintain freedom of navigation in some of the world's most important waterways.
And over the decades, we have worked side-by-side as you invested in the capabilities to defend yourselves. We've supported you along the way, and we're going to keep doing so.
Our forces train together, plan together, and work together—and that makes us stronger together.
The whole world saw what that means just a few months ago, during Operation Allies Refuge. As we wound down the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the world witnessed again the power of our network of partnerships.
When America asked for help, our friends stood up. And leadership from this region helped us to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan, and to provide safe transit for them in the Gulf and beyond.
You know, I'm incredibly proud of the troops who waged this mission of mercy, and of the partners who raced to save innocents in harm's way.
Our network of allies and partners in the Middle East and beyond is a huge force multiplier.
It's a vast strategic advantage.
It is unmatched. It is unparalleled. And it is unrivaled.
And we are deeply grateful.
From President Biden on down, we're committed to strengthening the bonds between governments of goodwill—and to working together to expand the circle of security, and opportunity, and self-government, and human dignity.
So we're going to build on our longstanding investments in this crucial region—in security cooperation, and training, and professional military education, capacity building, and intelligence sharing, and joint exercises. It is a core part of my mission as Secretary of Defense to deepen and widen our partnerships.
So I'd like to talk today about two key ways in which we're doing that. First, that means updating and upgrading our relationships with our friends—and working together with you to advance what I call "integrated deterrence" against the challenges of the 21st century.
And second, it means understanding that many of the region's most urgent security threats transcend borders. And it means tackling them through determined multilateral efforts.
Now, we all need to start with some humility. I've seen more than enough combat in this region to understand the limits of what military force alone can do. You know, I work in a building with plenty of hammers, but that doesn't mean that everything around us is a nail.
As President Eisenhower put it in 1956, "Arms alone can give the world no permanent peace, no confident security. Arms are solely for defense—to protect from violent assault what we already have."
So President Biden made clear in his interim national-security guidance that diplomacy is America's tool of first resort and that the U.S. military is here to buttress it.
Leading with diplomacy and using all instruments of our national power are central to the new National Defense Strategy that the Department of Defense is working on—and its cornerstone concept of integrated deterrence.
As we have throughout America's history, we're going to make something clear to any potential adversary—and that is that the costs and the risks of aggression are out of line with any possible benefit.
In the 21st century, that means weaving together cutting-edge technology, and operational concepts, and state-of-the-art capabilities to prevent conflict, to seamlessly dissuade aggression in any form or forum, using every instrument of national power, and to deter across every domain, and throughout every theater, and from every foe.
In the Middle East and North Africa, integrated deterrence means synchronizing our actions and capabilities with those of our partners and allies.
It means greater interoperability, and communication, and innovation. And it means working with our friends to deter aggression in space and cyberspace as well as air, land, and sea.
[Pause—steps away from podium to take a drink of water]
You're not getting off that easy.
Now, as CENTCOM commander, I saw firsthand the way that the number of U.S. troops and capabilities across this region ebb and flow. The United States is a global power with global responsibilities, including making sure that our troops are ready and modernized. But we have very real combat power in this theater, and we can and will maintain it. And if needed, we will move in more—and we will move it in rapidly. Because that's also what a global power does. And no one should doubt our resolve or our capabilities to defend ourselves, and all those who work alongside us to keep this region secure.
We're focused on 21st-century threats—and that means more dynamic, and agile, and tailored deployments that give pause to any potential foe. Our potential punch includes what our friends can contribute, and what we have pre-positioned, and what we can rapidly flow in. And our friends and foes both know that the United States can deploy overwhelming force at the time and place of our choosing.
And so ultimately, our mission is to support diplomacy, and to deter conflict, and to defend the United States and our vital interests. And if we're forced to turn back aggression, we will win—and we will win decisively.
All of this involves constantly evaluating and updating our global posture. But let's be clear: America's commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure.
So we'll defend our interests in this region. And we'll continue to evaluate the right mix of forces to bolster our deterrence against Iran. We'll protect our forces from attack by Tehran or its proxies. We'll work together to ensure that ISIS can't reconstitute itself in Iraq and Syria. And we'll continue to support freedom of navigation in the region's vital waterways. We'll drive to end lingering conflicts. And we'll keep up our relentless focus on counterterrorism, even as we shift to an over-the-horizon concept in Afghanistan.
So we've got a lot to do.
And we're going to do it together.
That means standing up for our interests, and our principles, and our friends.
It means that we stand up for democracy in Tunisia, and hope to see a rapid return to constitutional order.
It means that we stand up for Iraq's sovereignty and independence, against any party or proxy that tries to violate it.
It means that we stand by the people of Lebanon in this hour of terrible need.
It means that our commitment to Israel's security is ironclad.
And it means that we continue to work toward progress toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It means that we continue to work to end the tragic war in Yemen, to call on the Houthis to stop their attacks, both on Saudi territory and inside Yemen, and to end the suffering of the Yemeni people.
And it means that we continue to buttress this region's security architecture through military-to-military cooperation, training, and joint exercises.
Yet we also must be ready for big changes in our security environment. And that leads me to my second major point. In the 21st century, we need a broader view of Middle Eastern security—and we all need deeper multilateral partnerships to tackle shared threats.
Many of today's most urgent dangers just don't care about borders—from the pandemic and climate change to nuclear proliferation, unmanned aerial systems, violent extremist groups, and Iranian support for terrorism.
You know, America can't confront these common challenges alone. And so we must tackle shared dangers together—with the full power of partnership.
That's why President Biden has personally directed his entire national-security team to reinvigorate and reinvest in our alliances and partnerships. And in this region, we see how cooperation can make us all safer, on front after front.
Consider the coalition to defeat ISIS. Its members are training, and advising, and assisting local partners in Iraq and Syria, helping to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS's cruelty, and giving critical services and aid to people freed from ISIS rule.
Or think of our work with partners in the Gulf, where we've joined an important international effort to help Saudi Arabia strengthen its air defenses—boosting its own capabilities, and contributing air-defense systems alongside Greece, the United Kingdom, and France.
Or look offshore, where the U.S.-founded International Maritime Security Construct is defending freedom of navigation for all—and not just for navies but for civilian shipping as well, thanks to firm leadership from the U.K. and from our regional partners helping to patrol their territorial waters.
But you know, we've still got much more to do together.
So I'd like to say just a few words about four of the most pressing challenges that we all face: the pandemic, climate change, terrorism, and Iran.
First, the pandemic. We can't beat COVID-19 by leaving it to smolder in some parts of the planet. This terrible disease has been a body blow to every country on Earth.
So we're proud to support our regional partners with vaccines, and medical supplies, and economic aid. And we're proud to be the largest global donor to COVAX.
You know, we've donated more than 8.2 million lifesaving vaccine doses in this region, including donations to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, and Yemen. And we're going to keep driving hard with our partners to end this pandemic.
And second, we're intensely focused on the climate crisis. It is an existential threat.
All countries will be far less secure in a warming world that's stressed, volatile, and chaotic. And it's easy to see the risk of new Middle East conflicts in jostling over resources that span borders.
So we really don't have time to lose. And the Department of Defense is doing its part, moving quickly to cut down on our own emissions, and improve the energy efficiency of our bases, ships, and airplanes, and deploy clean-energy technologies that reduce our carbon footprint. As President Biden said in Glasgow, "This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes. We can do this. We just have to make a choice to do it."
Third, we must work together to combat terrorism—including in Afghanistan,
from al-Qaeda, and from the malice and sectarian hatred of ISIS.
As I made clear last month when I convened the members of the Defeat ISIS Coalition during the NATO Defense Ministerial, the United States remains committed to supporting our partners in Iraq and Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
But let's also understand where we are. Twenty years after 9/11, the United States is a more resilient nation and one that's better equipped to prevent attacks on our civilians.
So we'll continue to strengthen our partnerships to dismantle terrorist networks, including throttling their financing, and countering their propaganda, and blocking their travel. And we'll meet threats targeting American civilians with our full range of capabilities.
Fourth and finally, I know that many of us share deep concerns about the Iranian government's destabilizing actions—including its support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies, and its nuclear program.
The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue.
But if Iran isn't willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all the options necessary to keep the United States secure.
Now, next week, Iran's negotiating team is set to return to Vienna to restart talks on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We and our partners will return to those talks in good faith.
But Iran's actions in recent months have not been encouraging—especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program. As my friend and colleague Secretary of State Blinken has said, Iran's nuclear activities are bringing us closer to the point at which returning to the JCPOA won't recapture its benefits. But if Iran comes back with constructive positions, we still think we can quickly resolve our lingering differences to make a mutual return to the JCPOA possible.
Yet Iran presents us all with serious security challenges that go beyond its nuclear program.
Iran stokes tensions in this region and beyond, and that undermines peace and stability for us all.
Now, Iran's neighbors have tried to talk and improve relations. We fully support those efforts. And we urge Iran to do its part, and to take steps to reduce violence and conflict.
But whatever Iran decides, we will continue to work closely with our partners. Iran should have no illusions that it can undermine our strong relationships in this region. And we will defend ourselves, and we will defend our friends, and we will defend our interests.
That includes tackling the dangerous use of unmanned aircraft systems. Iran's proliferation of one-way, attack UAVs is a constant threat to American troops, and a hindrance in the fight against ISIS. And as we've seen in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, many of our partners face the same threat every day.
And this is more than just a Middle East problem. Such systems are likely to feature prominently in the conflicts of the future, and they already threaten civilian aircraft. And that's why my Department has made it a priority to address the drone threat.
We're bringing the region together to tackle it—including through joint exercises and training in places such as the UAE Air Warfare Center. For 17 years now, we've joined with the UAE to bring together air forces from the Gulf and beyond to train and integrate together. We also have a range of systems deployed in the region that have already thwarted drone attacks. And thanks to our shared investments, our partners here have their own formidable capabilities to handle the dangers from UAVs.
And we're significantly enhancing Saudi Arabia's ability to defend itself. Saudi ground and air forces are now defeating nearly 90 percent of UAVs and missiles fired from Yemen— and we'll work with them until it's 100 percent. America's commitment to helping our friends defend their sovereign space is unwavering.
So we're also helping our Gulf partners defend themselves against threats from Houthi forces in Yemen, including not just drones but also ballistic missiles and explosive boats. And across the Middle East, we're supporting efforts to better integrate air and missile defenses, and to strengthen regional security cooperation, and to interdict dangerous material at sea.
That's because the threats posed by Iran and its proxies are too widespread for any of us to go it alone. We must work together to share information, and to support regional air defenses, and to join in mutual defense.
And if Iran truly wants to rejoin the international community, it must return to international norms.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, that's a big agenda.
But we're determined to get it done.
We can all move toward a new era of partnership—one in which multilateral efforts tackle shared threats, and operations are more integrated, and defense relationships grow deeper.
Let me again echo Colin Powell: America is attached by a thousand cords to the world, and to this region.
So we'll work together to make this region more stable and secure.
We'll work together to make this region more prosperous and just.
And we'll work together to give all of this region's children the chance to reach their God-given potential.
Thank you very much.
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