Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, speaks after receiving the Atlantic Council’s 2009 Distinguished Military Leadership Award during the council’s gala in Washington D.C.
WASHINGTON (April 30, 2009) – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus attended a ceremony here last night honoring several giants of military, government, industry and the arts.
Gates introduced former President George H.W. Bush, an honoree at the Atlantic Council’s annual gala, while Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, received the council’s Distinguished Military Leadership Award.
Helmut Kohl, former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Samuel J. Palmisano, chairman and CEO of IBM Corporation, and Thomas Hampson, a world reknowned opera singer, also received awards.
Along with highlighting the work of these key leaders, the event also celebrated the 60th anniversary of NATO and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and emphasized the role the Atlantic community has played since World War II. Guest speakers punctuated the ceremony with Cold War anecdotes and nostalgia for the era when former Soviet satellite states emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.
Gates recalled witnessing these moments in history from a front-row seat. “I remember being the note-taker when President Bush spoke on the phone about these matters with [German] Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl,” recalled Gates, who was Bush’s deputy national security advisor at the time. “It was the afternoon of Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the Berlin Wall came down, and thousands of East Germans had already begun moving freely across the border,” he said.
Before welcoming Bush onstage to accept the council’s Distinguished International Leadership Award, the defense secretary shared his recollection of the president’s deft handling of the vanquished Soviet empire during Moscow’s moment of great vulnerability.
“As the communist bloc was disintegrating,” he said, “it was George Bush’s skilled, yet quiet, statecraft that made a revolutionary time seem much less dangerous than it actually was.”
Petraeus said he was grateful to receive the council’s award, but quickly turned the spotlight on the nation’s troops. “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 them to do,” the general said.
Petraeus, whose command responsibility includes the war in Afghanistan, underscored the significance of NATO’s commitment to that mission.
“In signing on to support missions in Afghanistan, NATO nations signaled their recognition that transnational extremism poses a threat to all of us,” he said. “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.”
The general said critics have seized on the deteriorating security conditions in some parts of Afghanistan and questioned NATO’s competency and level of commitment.
“Afghanistan has thus emerged as a critical challenge for NATO, and the alliance now faces a very urgent moment,” Petraeus said. “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.”