Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told the members of the National Student Leadership Council held at American University here that the global financial crisis overlays challenges in all parts of the world.
Mullen told the students – who hold leadership positions at high schools around the country – his job has not changed with the changing of administrations. “I still provide the best military advice I can to the president and secretary of defense and the National Security Council,” he said.
Mullen said he provided the same advice to President George W. Bush as he does to President Barack Obama; what changes, the admiral explained, are the administration’s goals. When Obama took office, Mullen said, he helped to formulate the strategy for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. In Afghanistan, the president put together a regional approach and a strong civilian-led team to address “soft power” aspects of the new strategy.
Obama has made it a priority to pursue a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine, Mullen said, and he noted that the president has reached out to Iran. “I am encouraged by that, and I’m hopeful as well, but I am realistic about that,” the chairman said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had any dialogue with Iran, and it will take awhile [to establish].
“Every president develops his policy,” the nation’s top military officer said, “and then we go out and execute that policy.”
Challenges also do not wait, he pointed out.
“The challenges that we have right now are daunting and going to grow,” Mullen said, citing the need to defend computer networks as one example. The United States depends on information technology, he said, and attacks via cyberspace could cause the nation serious harm.
“The problem is going to grow, and I look to your generation to address it,” Mullen said. “It is a vital need, not just for the military, but for the entire nation and for the globe.”
Mullen said he spends most of his time on the broader Middle East. This includes Lebanon, the two-state Israel-Palestine solution, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s creeping into the ’stans of Central Asia,” he said, referring to other countries in the region whose names end similarly. “All are interrelated.”
The chairman said he recently returned from his 13th visit to Pakistan since February 2008. “Every time I go to Pakistan, I learn more and I learn more about what I don’t know,” he said. “Pakistan is an enormously complex country, a critical country undergoing great pressure, scrutiny and challenges. It is where Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida and its leadership reside.”
In Pakistan, the chairman said, he does more listening than talking and tries to “see the problems through their eyes – not through American eyes.”
“We can’t adequately address problems in assisting other people, supporting other people, unless we learn more about them,” he told the students.
The military is pushing for servicemembers to learn more history of these regions, Mullen said, and the Defense Department needs military members to understand the languages. “Exposure to other people and cultures will be even more important as you get older,” he told the young audience.
The chairman told the students that the Army and Marine Corps are particularly stressed in the two wars. Soldiers and Marines have deployed constantly since the United States was attacked in 2001, he said, and their families also are paying a price.
“There are young dependents – not much older than you — who haven’t seen their Mom or Dad a lot over the past eight years,” he said.
The chairman told the young leaders they need to study leadership during a time of change. “Lots of things are changing, have changed and will change,” he said. “Leading through change is the most challenging kind of leadership.” People like the status quo and they fight against change, he explained, and leadership means helping people embrace change to make the changes work.
The admiral noted that the nation is living in a time of great needs. “Service – any service – is needed, and there is nothing more satisfying,” the chairman said. “When you serve, you get back more than you ever give.”
One student asked Mullen to describe the best part of his job.
“My favorite part of the job is dealing with the young people who make this all happen,” he said. “If you go to any unit, the average age in units is 21 or 22 years old,” he said. “In the most difficult of circumstances, they come through. I leave much more inspired by my engagement with them than I could ever create for them.”
The same is true, he added, with the families of servicemembers. “I have engaged mothers and fathers who have lost their son or daughter, and their fortitude, their courage, their bravery is hard to put words around,” he said. “It makes me feel so good about our country and being an American.”