President Biden on Wednesday paid tribute to the men and women serving in the U.S. military, pledging to uphold diversity and promising never to politicize their work in his first visit to the Pentagon as commander in chief.
In prepared remarks, Biden emphasized his personal connection to the military as he sought to assure service members of his support and turn the page on the tumultuous four years of his predecessor, former President Trump.
“You are incredible heroes and incredible patriots. I will never, ever dishonor you, I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do,” Biden said. “This is personal for me. The Biden family is a military family. We learned firsthand some of what your families experienced.”
Biden mentioned the stress, worry and pride that he and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, experienced when their late son Beau Biden deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s. Beau Biden died in 2015 from brain cancer.
President Biden said he would never hesitate to use force to defend the interests of the United States and its allies but characterized force as a “tool of last resort,” emphasizing the importance of diplomacy in achieving his foreign policy agenda. He described members of the military as essential to confronting emerging threats and challenges, including technology in competition in space and the cyber realm.
“You are essential to how we must rethink and reprioritize our security to meet the challenges of this century, not the last,” Biden said.
Biden and Vice President Harris arrived at the Pentagon on Wednesday afternoon, greeted by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. The officials met for roughly an hour before Biden’s speech.
“Their visit to the Pentagon shows the importance they place on our national security and importantly the deep value that they place in the men and women of this department,” Austin said in his introduction to Harris and Biden in his most extensive public remarks since his confirmation last month.
Austin said he knew “firsthand” of Biden’s commitment to defending the nation and supporting the men and women serving in the U.S. military. Austin’s relationship with the Biden family stretches back to when Beau Biden, a captain in the Delaware National Guard, served on Austin’s staff in Iraq. Austin called him “an outstanding officer and a good man.”
Harris and Biden each paid tribute to Black History Month, noting the sacrifices of Black service members. After Biden’s speech, they toured the African Americans in Service corridor of the Pentagon along with Austin, who is the first African American man to lead the Defense Department.
Biden said that the contributions of Black service members throughout history had helped America move toward “greater equality.”
“Right now, more than 40 percent of our active duty forces are people of color. It’s long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our force is reflected at every level in this department,” Biden said.
The visit comes at a time when the military is struggling to root out extremism from its ranks. The issue is longstanding, but came to the forefront after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in which several people arrested have military backgrounds.
Austin has made addressing extremism a top priority since the attack, ordering commands to take a one-day stand-down before April 6 to discuss the issue with their troops.
Navy officials also condemned extremism Tuesday after two recent incidents where a noose and hate speech graffiti were found aboard ships, followed Wednesday by Army leaders calling out “corrosive behavior.”
In his remarks, Biden pledged to ensure all service members are treated with “dignity and respect,” pointing to his order to reverse the Trump administration’s transgender military ban.
“Every single person, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race or religious background, deserves to feel safe in the ranks and to have their contributions valued,” he said. “It’s on all of us to stand up, to speak out when you see someone being abused. This is an organization that has defeated American enemies on land, sea and air, and been defined by the way we treat others. So I know this is not beyond us. Not if each of us makes this a priority as well.”
Biden also used the speech to announce a Defense Department review of its China strategy, examining areas such as the U.S. military footprint in the region, intelligence, technology and U.S. alliances.
The China review adds to an already heavy slate of reviews the Pentagon has started in the early days of the Biden administration.
In addition to reviewing how to root out extremism from the ranks, Austin used one of his first acts as Pentagon chief to order a review of military sexual assault prevention efforts.
The Pentagon is also reviewing all of its advisory boards to determine which ones are needed after purging boards of Trump loyalists appointed at the end of the previous administration.
The Pentagon is also leading a review ordered by Biden of global U.S. force posture and participating in the administration’s review of the U.S.-Taliban deal, including whether to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by May.
Biden did not comment directly on troops levels Wednesday, but said he will work with Austin and “leaders around the world to bring a responsible end to wars that have dragged on for far too long.”
Still, he pledged to “continue to ensure that terrorist threats cannot endanger the security of the American people.”
Biden’s first visit to the Pentagon stood in stark contrast to Trump, who used his first visit to the department to sign a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries in a room dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients.
Trump was widely criticized for politicizing the military at various points during his tenure, including with his photo-op alongside military officials at a church in Washington last year after racial injustice protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square near the White House.
Trump’s relationship with the military was fraught during his tenure. He enjoyed support from veterans and military members but often caught service members by surprise with abrupt announcements, such as his move last year to scale back U.S. presence in Germany. The decision has since been halted by Biden.
Wednesday’s visit is among a handful Biden is making to national security personnel in his first weeks as president. Biden delivered a speech at the State Department last week where he laid out his foreign policy agenda, emphasizing the importance of alliances in contrast to Trump’s “America first” approach.
(R) The Hill