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Remarks to the American Legion National Legislative Commission

Location: Unknown

Thank you. It's an honor to speak to my fellow Legionnaires today. I'm a proud member of the American Legion--and the son of another member--because of its long, distinguished history of service to both veterans and country. Chartered in 1919, the American Legion remains the country's largest wartime veterans-service organization. The Legion also sponsors many youth and community programs to promote patriotism, national security, and civic involvement. For instance, the Legion runs the Boys State program, where my dad and I attended as delegates. I also was a delegate to the Boys Nation program. My dad and I both gave back as counselors at Boys State, and my dad today is vice chairman of the Boys State Commission in Arkansas.

Like so many young men, we were inspired by the example of the heroic veterans of the Legion, the same example of duty and sacrifice set by the men and women in this room. My dad wound up enlisting in the Army as an infantryman during Vietnam, serving there in the Fourth Infantry Division. My path was a bit more winding.

On 9/11, I was in class at Harvard Law School. I reached the student commons just in time to see the first tower fall. Like you, I initially felt shock and horror. That evolved quickly enough into rage, defiance, and determination. I wanted to rush out and enlist right away, but cooler heads prevailed on me--mostly my friends in the Army saying I didn't want to be repaying law-school loans on a lieutenant's or private's salary. (Once I began making that salary, I knew they were right.)

So I finished my education and fulfilled my obligations, but never lost my determination to fight back for my country. I repaid my loans after a couple years and walked into the recruiter's office. I told him I wanted to be an infantry officer, wanted to go to Ranger School, and wanted to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. He said, "Hold on, sir. What do you do for a living?" I told him I was a lawyer. He replied, "Sir, you know you can become a JAG lawyer for the Army, right? It's more rank, better pay, less hardship, and shorter training. What about that?" I said no, I wanted to be in the infantry. And he said, "Sir, you must not be a very good lawyer."

But he signed me up. I knew I wouldn't be a JAG, but I wasn't guaranteed to get infantry. That worried me till I received my assignment during basic training. Of course, after a while in the Army, I realized it was foolish to have been worried. Because if you're an able-bodied young man and you ask for Infantry, you usually get Infantry. And if you're an able bodied young man, and you ask for Adjutant General … you usually get Infantry. So I managed to get my wish.

I spent a year at Fort Benning, emerging as a Second Lieutenant and Airborne Ranger. I led an infantry platoon with the101st Airborne in Baghdad. I laid my fellow soldiers to rest at Arlington National Cemetery as a platoon leader with The Old Guard. And I deployed a second time to Afghanistan.

The lessons I learned in the Army reinforced what my parents taught me, and have set me up for success ever since. All of us here learned concrete skills in the military, whether flying a helicopter or shooting a machinegun or countless others. But more important were the intangible lessons, things like teamwork, discipline, leadership, handling ambiguity and uncertainty, and making decisions with the highest possible stakes. We also learned that no matter how adverse the circumstances, there's almost always something we can do to make it better.

I'm reminded of one particularly tough night in Ranger School. We were marching through the mountains outside Dahlonega, Georgia. It was pitch-black, freezing cold, and an ice storm was rolling in. Large tents with warming stoves had been dropped off for us, but not before the sleet and freezing rain began. We were all frostbitten and sleep-deprived; we simply couldn't manipulate the ropes and stakes with our frozen hands. I slammed down my gear and, shall we say, expressed my frustration with colorful language. An instructor came over and asked me, "Hey Ranger, what's the matter?" I asked how we were supposed to put up tents with frozen fingers. He asked if I had rubbed them, blown on them, put them in my armpits, or anything else. I admitted that I hadn't and he said, "Yeah, there's definitely nothing you can do," and walked away.

I remember that story so vividly because its lesson is so simple and clear: Be a problem-solver, not a problem-raiser, no matter how tough the situation.

Unfortunately, Washington sorely lacks problem-solvers ready to take responsibility for tackling our country's biggest challenges. We certainly don't lack for problem-raisers here. But we also have too many people who think the solution to every problem is another government program.

Chief among them is the president. Sometimes, he simply raises the problem with no solution--or, worse, denies it, as when he reportedly said "we don't have a spending problem," even though he's responsible for $6 trillion dollars in new debt. Other times, his only solution is raise more taxes and spend more money--or take "collective action," as he now likes to call big government. Because of that, we're putting at risk both our fiscal stability and national security.

Make no mistake: Our country is at a fiscal crossroads. Our debt is nearly $17 trillion dollars, or roughly 100% of the value of all the goods and services we produce each year. Countries with a 70% debt-to-economy ratio are generally considered bad investments; those with a 90% ratio tend to have much lower economic growth, much like our anemic "recovery" of the last four years. Greece, for comparison, has debt roughly 160% of its economy--and mass unemployment, recession, and rioting in the streets. We face a debt crisis that, if unchecked, will similarly hurt every American and mean less prosperity, lower quality of life, less opportunity, and diminished freedom for us all.

If we're going to avoid this debt crisis, we must get Washington spending under control. By far the biggest driver of our debt is Medicare, which the president's own actuaries predict will go bankrupt in less than a decade. House Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, have proposed a solution to save Medicare for today's seniors and preserve it for tomorrow's with more patient choice, medical competition, and market-based innovation. President Obama's "answer" is to demagogue the issue--and add Obamacare, an unaffordable trillion-dollar entitlement. The president, put simply, is absent for duty on one of the most urgent issues of our time.

Instead, he's busy predicting disaster if a small amount of automatic spending cuts--the so-called "sequester"--takes effect on Friday. The sequester would cut a mere $85 billion from a $3.8 trillion budget. These cuts are across the board, which isn't the smartest way to govern, but was necessary to reach an agreement in 2011 to increase the debt ceiling. Certain programs like veterans' benefits and Social Security are exempt. Unfortunately, the biggest and most important program not exempt from the cuts is our military.

Half of the $85 billion in spending cuts will come from our military--over 8% of total defense spending. This is so even though defense accounts for less than 20% of our budget and has suffered $800 billion in cuts already under the Obama administration. By contrast, domestic programs will be cut by barely 5% after enjoying 17% spending increases over the last four years.

House Republicans have twice tried to solve this problem by preserving the same level of modest spending cuts, but reconfiguring them to protect our military. The president, on the other hand, has proposed no solution beyond yet more tax hikes and hysterical doom-saying about the impact of cutting 2% of government spending. Like most liberals, he truly is horrified at the idea of cutting spending anywhere, unless it's the military.

That old, naïve attitude is always dangerous, but it's particularly risky to hollow-out our military when so many threats to our national security are gathering abroad. I think it's fair to observe this president has treated war and diplomacy at best as a secondary priority and perhaps as an unwelcome distraction. I think that's proven by his nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and his response to the Benghazi attacks.

I won't mince words: Chuck Hagel is not qualified to be Secretary of Defense. Like us, Mr. Hagel is a veteran, and his service in Vietnam is valiant and admirable. But his views, which are presumably acceptable to President Obama, portend a fearful retreat from the world.

For example, Mr. Hagel apparently supports even more cuts to defense spending. He has called the military "bloated" and says it needs to be "pared down." Contrast that with the current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, who has said the sequester cuts will be "devastating." This cavalier attitude, if shared by the president, is deeply irresponsible and dangerous.

Similarly both men have worrisome views about America's nuclear deterrent. Mr. Hagel has signed a report that advocates for nuclear disarmament. Reports suggest that the president may unilaterally reduce our nuclear arsenal by more than a third, to barely 1,000 weapons. This comes as North Korea just tested another nuclear weapon and Iran is racing to obtain nuclear-weapons capability. This view is foolhardy, because it's not the nature of the weapon that is a problem, it's the nature of the regime that wields the weapon. The United States is the greatest force for freedom in the world and our nuclear weapons are an essential part of the arsenal of freedom.

Finally, President Obama and Mr. Hagel both have displayed deep irresponsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our brave troops and their commanders won the war in Iraq after the surge, which Mr. Hagel and the president stridently opposed--even though Mr. Hagel had voted to send those troops to war. But they didn't just oppose it. They delayed emergency funding for the troops and voted to force an arbitrary withdrawal. Likewise, the president hastily withdrew all troops from Iraq against the wishes of his commanders, putting at risk their great achievements.

I fear history will repeat--is repeating--itself in Afghanistan. Thanks to our troops and their commanders, we've made significant progress there over the last five years. The president unfortunately has consistently short-changed troop deployments, announced arbitrary withdrawal timelines, and refused to speak of "victory." Instead, he and Mr. Hagel speak of "ending" ten years of war. Unfortunately, wars are not movies. They do not end. They are won or they are lost, and the quickest way to end a war is to lose it. I worry deeply that the president's war-weariness will lead to precisely that outcome.

Regrettably, our enemies do not share the president's weariness; they remain committed to our defeat and destruction. You can see this commitment in Benghazi. Terrorists with al Qaeda affiliations attacked our consulate last September 11, killing four brave Americans, including our ambassador and two former Navy SEALs. Before the attack, our officials in Libya requested additional security, but it fell on deaf ears, leaving the consulate vulnerable to the attack. After the attack, the president and his political spinners seemed more interested in falsely blaming an obscure YouTube video rather than capturing or killing the terrorist. To this day, we have virtually no active leads in the investigation. Indeed, the lead suspect was recently released from custody and his affiliates openly taunt American investigators.

Perhaps most outrageous, we now know the president took no active leadership role during the eight hours when sovereign U.S. territory was under attack. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs mentioned the attacks to the president during a pre-planned meeting. In response, the president said, and these are his words, "I issued a directive to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our troops and our assets." Then he left the meeting and never again spoke to them, never inquired whether or how his "directive" was being implemented. He didn't convene a Situation Room meeting. He didn't follow-up with his commanders to probe for the creativity and audacity needed in crisis.

Would you accept this failure of leadership from a brand-new lieutenant? No, you wouldn't. Many of you remember the 8-step troop-leading procedures; I certainly do. Step Eight, the final step, is not issue the order. Step Seven is issue the order. Step Eight--which my commanders reminded me countless times is the most important step--is supervise. President Obama, with American lives and territory at risk, couldn't be bothered to supervise his own order. Could there be a clearer failure of leadership? A clearer indication of negligence--even indifference--to our national security?

A staggering $17 trillion debt, a historically weak "recovery," al Qaeda on the march, U.S. territory under attack … we face no end of serious challenges to our prosperity and security. But the men and women in this room know real adversity. You know real sacrifice. And you know the American people still venerate the problem-solving, can-do mindset of our troops and our veterans. I pledge to you that I will never forget those lessons from the Army, that I will do all in my power to solve our debt crisis, to promote opportunity for all Americans, and to defeat our enemies. As with all human affairs, I cannot guarantee success, but I can make you this promise: I will leave this town with my shield or on my shield.

Rangers Lead The Way. Thank you.

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