This speech was delivered by Jeh Charles Johnson, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense at the Oxford Union, Oxford University, Nov. 30. 2012
Thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege for me to stand here, in the same place, before the same Union, as the Prime Ministers, Presidents, and other world notables who have preceded me.
I am the General Counsel of the U.S. Defense Department. If I had to summarize my job in one sentence: it is to ensure that everything our military and our Defense Department do is consistent with U.S. and international law. This includes the prior legal review of every military operation that the Secretary of Defense and the President must approve.
My counterpart here in the United Kingdom is Ms. Frances Nash, the legal adviser to the U.K. Ministry of Defence. Like Ms. Nash, I am a civilian, not a member of the military, consistent with the principle in both our countries of civilian oversight of the military. Unlike Ms. Nash, who is a civil servant and a long-time official of the Ministry of Defence, I am a political appointee. This means I serve at the pleasure of the current President, and have no expectation of serving for any other.
Here in the United Kingdom, you refer to July 7, 2005, the day of the terrorist suicide bombings of the London subway, as 7/7. I am a New Yorker and a personal witness to the events of 9/11. I was a private citizen then, and like many others that day, wandered the streets of Manhattan asking: what can I do to help?
Over the last 46 months as a public official, I have tried to answer that question.
There is a quote from the Brookings Institution in Washington, which motivates my own public service: American government was designed to be led by citizens who would step out of private life for a term of office, then return to their communities enriched by service and ready to recruit the next generation of citizen servants. The Founding Fathers believed in a democracy led by individuals who would not become so enamored of power and addicted to perquisites that they use government as an instrument of self-aggrandizement.
Indeed, it was the British poet Lord Byron who called our First President, George Washington, the Cincinnatus of the West for his decision to surrender his personal power after the American Revolution and retire to his farm on Mount Vernon.
As a member of the Obama Administration for the last four years, I have been privileged to witness many transformational and historic events in the national security of the United States. We ended the combat mission in Iraq.
We increased the number of combat forces in Afghanistan and have reversed much of the Talibans momentum in the country. Challenges remain, but violence is down across the country. We have a timetable for transitioning our efforts in Afghanistan to the Afghans own security forces, and we are adhering to it. And though we have disagreed with our Afghan partners from time to time, as of this date we have negotiated and signed understandings with the Afghan government on detention operations, special operations and an overall strategic partnership, representing major milestones toward the day when the peace and security of that country is fully in the hands of the Afghan people and their government.