SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, good morning, everyone.
CADETS: Good morning.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Happy Veterans Day to all you veterans out there. Thank you too, Eric, for those kind words. It’s very special to have one of my soldiers here with me on this amazing day, where I’ve been invited to come speak to this great group of young people here at The Citadel.
I invited Eric – Specialist Leafblad, as I once called him – to speak today because he sets an incredible example for all of us. He shows us that in our time in uniform there is more value than even that moment. And you all sit here in uniform today; you’ll know what I mean.
It prepares us all for a lifetime of giving back to this amazing country. It helps us reach our potential as individuals and as citizens of the United States of America.
And of course, what better day to be reminded of that than today? It’s an honor to spend Veterans Day at one of America’s great military colleges, a campus that believes deeply in fighting for American ideals, not protesting them. Imagine that.
By the way, I hear your football team is still in the hunt for the conference title. Is that right? (Applause.) I wish you unmitigated good luck – because you don’t play Army this year. (Laughter.)
I want to thank the many future veterans that are here today too, all of you who plan to pursue military service after graduating. I salute you.
I remember. I understand branches will come out on Wednesday of this week. Good luck. I met some of you who chose Army branch. Hope you get it. I remember my time as a young West Point cadet a long time ago now. I can still recall, like you all today, the carefully pressed uniforms, the early morning drills, and just how eager I was at this time to get out on the field for my country.
I got my chance, patrolling the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Last week – I got back early on Saturday morning from Germany – I had the privilege of returning to where I once stood to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Standing there – on a chilly November day in Berlin – I felt proud to have played just a tiny part in that victory.
I was humbled by the privilege of returning to this ground that I had walked, that I had patrolled when I was with Specialist Leafblad, returning as Secretary of State and grateful to have chosen to get back into service of the United States of America.
You should feel that, too. You should feel proud, humbled, grateful to be a student at this distinguished institution.
And just like Eric, all of you who serve will gain knowledge and skills that equip you for that lifetime of service. And that’s what I want to spend today’s time sharing with you. I want to say a few things I learned in the military that I still put into use every day as Secretary of State, so that as you move through your time here at The Citadel, hopefully you will think about these things as well.
First, for me, military service turned into the relentless pursuit of excellence, excellence as a habit. It’s what Specialist Leafblad referred to. You know by now that your success as a cadet isn’t just about good grades. It’s about maintaining discipline in everything that you do. It’s about shining your shoes until you can see your reflection. You should check mine out this morning. It’s about showing up on time, ready to go, even if after three hours you felt like you didn’t get enough sleep.
To an outsider, to someone who is not familiar with this place, you may seem out of step. But once you step in the field – with your chin strap buckled, with your weapon in hand – the reason that you did that, the reason you dedicated yourself to this purpose, will become very clear. The mission will hinge, whether that’s in uniform or in civilian service, your mission will hinge on your capacity to focus and your capacity for personal self-discipline.
And many of you, for many of you, this will be a matter of life and death for those around you. That’s why there’s no “safe spaces” here at your military school. Trust me, it may not seem that way now, but you will thank your drill sergeant later.
I’m still thanking mine. My job every day requires me to maintain the habit of excellence. By the time I sit across as I travel the world, by the time I sit across from a foreign leader, I’ve poured hours into parsing through the latest intelligence, preparing myself, preparing my team; I’ve learned everything I can from my State Department teammates. I want to know the leader’s personality quirks, and I want to know the country’s internal politics. I want nothing left to chance for that important meeting.
And just like in military service, diplomacy requires a pursuit of excellence down to that last detail. I expect it of myself, and I expect it of every member of my team.
That leads me to my second lesson. Military service taught me that you can only be as good as that team that’s around you. A meeting with a foreign leader doesn’t just happen. You don’t just show up. It doesn’t involve just a handful of people who are sitting in that room on that particular moment. It requires hundreds of people – from the embassy staff, to policy experts, to the security team, and much, much more.
And the Army taught me, the military taught me, that effective leadership means setting a clear mission and a good example, while empowering every individual on the team to follow suit and have their own level of excellence.
For those of you who go on to lead men and women in the Armed Forces, I want you to know that there is no greater responsibility and no greater honor.
After I graduated, I was put in charge of a platoon of 30 soldiers in a cavalry regiment. You just heard from one of them: Specialist Leafblad. He told you his side of the story, and now I want to tell you mine.
Specialist Leafblad had entered the Army out of high school. As he described, he confessed to me that he hadn’t tried too hard in school, and he was working to figure out what would come next in his life. But I could see very clearly he was talented and he was bright. There was something really special, and I wanted to make sure and inspire him to the extent I could and motivate him.
I came to trust him. The vehicle was always ready. And I came to trust him with more and more responsibility. The more I gave him, the more he took on, and the more he proved he could handle.
And when he came to me one day, as he described, he said wanted to return home and give college a try, I encouraged him to do that. I knew it would blow an enormous hole in my unit, in my platoon, and that I’d have to figure my way forward, but I wanted him to do that. I wanted him to do it for a reason: I knew that his service to America wouldn’t be over, just as when you leave here, whether you join the military or you go into civilian service, your time of service won’t be over either.
Eric described a letter that I received a couple years ago recounting his many successes. It filled me with great joy. He went to law school. He served for 11 years in his state attorney’s office. I must say it brought me great joy to hear of his accomplishments, but I must tell you I wasn’t surprised.
Here’s what he wrote. He wrote, quote, “Not a day goes by that I don’t use a skill or an idea that I learned from one of my mentors in the Army.”
That fills me with great pride. I am sure he was talking about people other than me when he talks about his mentors. Who knows how many lives Eric has gone on to save over the years through his remarkable work following his time in service in uniform? Best of all, he has become the director of training, now leading and training others, a mentor to generations of public servants.
It’s a powerful reminder to each and every one of you in this room that service and leadership can change a person’s life and the lives of those around and cause a ripple effect with positive impacts all around the United States of America.
It’s why when I was the CIA director and now as Secretary of State, I’ve continued to try and identify talent, reward hard work, and encourage each person to be the best they can, to build out teams, because I know that it will pay dividends for our nation.
The last lesson. The last lesson that I learned from my time in the military, and it’s probably the most important of all, I learned that America is a truly exceptional nation with exceptional values, and it must be defended with exceptional courage.
I was reminded of this on the trip I referred to when I was traveling in Berlin. I remembered being a young soldier while that wall stood, and I remember seeing the despair that had taken root on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I could see it in the faces of the guards that patrolled the Eastern side. I witnessed the thin barrier between freedom and tyranny – and America’s role in ensuring that freedom always prevails.
I carry that lesson with me today as our administration works to defend freedom in a post-Cold War era. We are in a competition of ideas all around the world. Other great powers actively work alongside of us, but many, many promote their authoritarian models worldwide as alternatives to the fundamental way we live our lives here in America.
But we’re pushing back on that. When President Trump talks about the world, he talks about Americanism and the pride that we should have, and we should not apologize for the United States of America – not now and not ever.
From Europe to Latin America to the Indo-Pacific, we have mobilized our democratic partners to stand with us on the side of freedom. Many of your senior leaders here, including your general, served under uniform for exactly that ideal. From NATO to the United Nations, we have worked, too, to re-focus, to re-focus international institutions on their original purposes, promoting the central ideas of democracy and human rights, the very things you learn about in your classes today.
We see challenges all across the world, from persecuted Christians in the Middle East to Uighur Muslins in China. We have demanded that this not take place, that religious liberty and unalienable rights for the oppressed be put at the forefront of the world’s agenda.
I’ve been the Secretary of State now for some 19 months, traveled to 55 or so countries, some of which haven’t been visited by the Secretary of State in decades. I wanted to deliver that message, the message about who you are, who we are; to deliver the message that American leadership is back and that it is never easy to fight for freedom.
I chose public service one more time out of a responsibility that I feel to the generations that came before me that gave me this incredible privilege to be an American and live in freedom, and the responsibility that each of us had to the – has to the generations which will follow us.
And as we sit here today on November 11th, on Veterans Day, it’s a reminder of the sacrifices made down through the years, from the Civil War to the Cold War, from multiple World Wars, to defend the American ideal.
I must say, too, I look at you and I can see your generation has stepped up already to defend. Many who fight today in the Middle East are too young even to remember 9/11 as a firsthand experience, yet they bravely answer the call each and every day to combat terrorism.
Should you have the honor of serving, I pray that you learn the lessons that I learned and allow them to inform you in your lifetime of giving to America, because the country will need you. Your generation will need you. The generation that comes after you will need you, too, from what Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.” That’s because it’s human nature. It’s human nature to forget the precious value of what previous generations fought for and died.
It is common sense to be focused on the day. There is a natural gravity pulling us away from our founding towards false promises of progress. But you can’t resist this by simply flying straight. You have to actively steer towards the founding, toward our original ideas of limited government, individual liberty, and of unalienable rights – the founding documents you all read about in your classwork.
That requires courage and discipline, what you’re learning here at this amazing institution, and it’s what you have come to know about paying a price for freedom. I know you will all do this. I know you will all deliver.
I look forward to taking some questions today. I want to wish everyone out there a Happy Veterans Day. God bless you, God bless this amazing institution, The Citadel, and may God bless the United States of America. Thank you all so much. (Applause.)
COL CLARK: Secretary Pompeo, good morning.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning.
COL CLARK: My name is Colonel Tom Clark, United States Marine Corps, Retired, Citadel Class of 1985, and I serve as the executive director of the Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Sir, sitting before you is the future. These are the future leaders of our country. Based on historical trends, 35 percent of our graduates will join the military, like you and I did, to serve our nation; 65 percent will go on to serve in the public sector, private sector, or pursue advanced degrees in higher education.
They have questions for you, sir. These are their questions, and this is what they would like to know.
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Student Dimitri Fragopoulos, a junior studying Intelligence and Security Studies, asks the following question: “The media has accused the United States of abandoning the Kurds, one of our long-standing allies in the Middle East. How has this affected U.S. foreign relations in the region, and are you concerned that other allies might not trust the United States in the future?”
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, Colonel Clark, thanks for the question, and thank you for having me here. It’s great always when an Army guy gets together with a Marine. It’s always special. We’ll both be polite to each other.
COL CLARK: Yes, sir.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Do what we’ve always done and fight together.
The issues in the Middle East are incredibly complicated. The fact of the matter is that the Trump administration provided enormous resources to protect the Kurds, and not just the Kurds. We worked alongside an armed force called the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. There are Kurdish members of that. There are Arabs. There are Christians. It’s a multiethnic force.
The United States, beginning when President Trump took office, built out that relationship in a way we hadn’t been able to do as well before. But there was already work underway, and we crushed the caliphate. Right? That was the mission set. It was to take down a piece of real estate about the size of Ohio that was under the control of radical Islamic terrorists that denominated themselves as ISIS, and we did that. We did that incredibly successfully.
The threat from extremism, the counterterrorism threat, remains. But the real estate that they owned and the ability to network, control villages, raise money, generate tax revenue, we collectively obliterated. I am very proud of the work that our military did alongside the SDF and the diplomatic efforts that are underway now in the Middle East to try and create a political resolution to the horrific situation that Syria continues to find itself with.
We’re still working with the SDF. The relationships are great. We have State Department officials on the ground with the SDF even as we sit here today. We’re working alongside them to continue the Counter-ISIS campaign. President Erdogan will be in Washington on Wednesday of this week. He’ll meet with the President. We will talk about what transpired there and how we can do our level best collectively to ensure the protection of all of those in Syria – not just the Kurds but everyone in Syria, create a political resolution, and deliver on behalf of America’s interest in the region, which is to ensure that there is not a terror act here in the United States that threatens our homeland.
COL CLARK: Sir, thank you.
Sir, Cadet Henry Brown is a senior studying Political Science. He poses the following question: “Are Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its activities in eastern Ukraine, and subsequent action in Syria isolated incidents of a state trying to exert influence, or is it a sign that Russia is beginning to reassert itself as a ‘great power’ and thus becoming a significant threat to the United States and our allies?”
SECRETARY POMPEO: So when I think of Russia, having served in the Cold War in a time of the Soviet Union, I am reminded that the current leader of Russia, a former KGB officer, believes with all his heart, as he has stated repeatedly and publicly, that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
So when you ask what Russia is up to, I think Vladimir Putin has a – is an imperialist who would deeply like to go back to the days that he remembers as a young intelligence officer, but leading a country with an economy that doesn’t grow and doesn’t innovate in the same way we do here in the United States.
It is a powerful nation. They still have thousands of nuclear warheads. So these activities, whether the activities in southeast Ukraine or the activities that were described there in Syria, they are real. It is Russia trying to exert its influence.
And we have as a central mission in our administration to push back against them, to raise the cost everywhere we find Russian intervention, and, where we can, to find places where we can work with the Russians. When I was the CIA director, I worked closely with my Russian intelligence counterpart. We took down a plot together in St. Petersburg that saved Russian lives. There would have been Americans there as well. We worked together on counterterrorism to try and save lives wherever we could find them.
COL CLARK: Sir, I think this will be our final question, just due to our time. Cadet Walker Whitley, a senior studying Political Science, poses the following question: “Do you think the President’s Twitter campaign helps or hinders foreign policy and how other countries view the United States?”
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I am always reminded that I am America’s 70th Secretary of State and that President Trump is the 45th President, so there is a lot more turnover in my job than there is in his. (Laughter.)
Here’s the truth of the matter: I’ve come to know President Trump. I’ve worked with him and been with him almost every day for coming on three years now, and I’ve watched. I’ve watched how he communicates. In the old days it would have been press statements, press releases or someone speaking from the podium in the West Wing there from the White House press briefing. President Trump does his through Twitter. It’s a way he can reach the entire world instantaneously. It is an incredibly powerful communications tool.
And I must say world leaders read it. We will get responses to the – from them very, very quickly. And it is the case that he can shape the information battlespace very quickly. And I find that capacity – that capacity to communicate in a way that is dis-intermediated, where there is nobody sitting between the President’s directive, his mission set, and the end consumer of the information – I find to be very powerful and very helpful in what it is we’re trying to do.
COL CLARK: Well, thank you, sir. I appreciate the opportunity to share some questions of the students with you today, and we hope that you enjoy the remainder of your visit.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Bless you. Thank you for your service, Colonel Clark.
COL CLARK: Thank you, sir. I’d like to ask Cadet Snyder to the podium, please.
CADET SNYDER: Again, thank you, Secretary Pompeo, for coming to The Citadel for this Greater Issues address. As a token of our appreciation, I present you a photo of a Citadel cadet with the American flag we all hold so dear. (Applause.)
This concludes our program. Please join me in one more round of applause for Secretary Pompeo. (Applause.)