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Manama Dialogue (Manama, Bahrain)
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Manama, Bahrain, Saturday, December 08, 2007

Thank you very much.  And my thanks to IISS for hosting not just this event, but other international dialogues as well – such as the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.


I would also like to express my gratitude to his majesty the king and to the people of Bahrain for their hospitality, and for their kindness to me and the U.S. delegation.  For some six decades Bahrain – home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet – has been a valued friend and a contributor to security in the Gulf.


The partnership between Bahrain and the U.S. is one element of a broad American commitment to the security and stability of the Gulf, a commitment going back several decades and spanning multiple U.S. administrations.


The Gulf’s security was a major focus of my previous service in government – first under President Carter, then President Reagan, and then the first President Bush.


  • I remember the formulation of the “Carter Doctrine,” based on the tenet that America would do what was necessary to defend our vital interests in the Gulf – a policy adopted by subsequent presidents that ultimately led to the creation of the United States Central Command; 
  • During the late 1980s, the U.S. stood with Bahrain and other members of the GCC to protect tanker ships and keep vital sea lanes open; and
  • Then of course, the coalition that came together in 1990 to repel aggression against Kuwait. 

This morning I would like to provide an overview of some issues that are of deep concern to the people of the United States and the people of the Middle East – issues that frame the security environment of the region now and almost certainly will for the foreseeable future.  They include:


  • The situation in Iraq today – both obstacles and opportunities;
  • The implications of Iran’s ongoing refusal to comply with its international obligations and the destabilizing effects of its actions and words;  and third
  • The ways the United States is strengthening our security ties in the region, with the aim of fostering partnerships amongst the nations of the Gulf.  

It is useful to step back to when the Manama Dialogue last met, approximately one year ago, against a backdrop of deteriorating security and escalating sectarian violence in Iraq.


There was doubt in many quarters – at home and abroad – about whether the United States would be able to sustain our commitment in Iraq, and indeed in this part of the world broadly.  The record of American activity over the past year should dispel that uncertainty.  The United States remains committed to defending its vital interests and those of its allies in Iraq and in the wider Middle East.


I have just come from Iraq where I met both with American military commanders and Iraqi leaders.  As many of you are no doubt aware, there has been in recent weeks and months a reduction in the level of violence and the return of a semblance of daily life in many cities and communities.


Attacks on Coalition and Iraqi troops have declined but, just as significantly, so have attacks against Iraqi citizens.  Since the surge of U.S. forces began earlier this year, civilian deaths across Iraq are down about 60 percent, and they are down 75 percent in Baghdad.  Recently, there was the lowest number of single-day attacks across the nation in three and a half years.


We attribute this to a number of factors, among them:


  • A change of military tactics ordered by President Bush that emphasizes protecting the Iraqi people from insurgents, militias, and foreign terrorists;
  • The increasing effectiveness of the Iraqi military, in tandem with our forces and in operations by themselves;
  • The decision by some, but not all, militia groups to stand down from offensive operations; and
  • The groundswell of ordinary citizens who have risen up to fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq and protect their families and their neighborhoods. 

There is another side of the positive developments in Iraq, on the economic and civic front:


·         The Saddam-era debt burden has been significantly reduced by international debt relief.  I thank all nations that have contributed in this regard and urge remaining lenders to act promptly;

·         Sound economic policies have led to low inflation rates, a stable currency, and a business environment that is more attractive to foreign investment.  As a result, nominal growth is above 5 percent;

·         While we are impatient that key legislation has not been passed, the presence of bottom-up reconciliation has had an impact.  Provincial councils are more effective today than in the past, and concerned local citizens’ groups are giving more Iraqis a stake in the future of their nation.  Local reconciliation across tribal, sectarian, and provincial boundaries is increasing the pressure at the national level to do likewise, as Iraq’s leaders acknowledged to me;

·         Our provincial reconstruction teams are facilitating these efforts by building capabilities for provincial councils, and working to improve the federal ministries.  Both are efforts to improve community development, and both are gaining traction;

·         And there are the intangibles – the beginnings of a return to normalcy and renewed hope that cannot be quantified by numbers.


The progress is real.  But it is also fragile.  The Iraqi government must use this breathing space bought with the blood of American, Coalition, and Iraqi troops to pass critical legislation:


  • In order to solidify grassroots reconciliation;
  • To improve the scope and effectiveness of government services;
  • To signify that all elements of the government and society, whatever their beliefs and ethnicity, are, first and foremost, Iraqis; and
  • Ultimately, to make the lives of all Iraqis better.  

Iraq’s government must demonstrate to its people, and to the world, that it can act with unity, purpose, and resolve.


Whether the positive trends of recent months continue will be largely determined by where we go from here.  And by “we,” I mean not only the Unites States and the Iraqi government, but also the governments of every nation represented at this dialogue.


It is no secret that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will begin to decline this month.  That reality represents both risks and opportunities for the entire region.


As I said in Cairo earlier this year, whatever disagreements we may have over how we got to this point in Iraq, the consequences of a failed state – of chaos there – will adversely affect the security and prosperity of every nation in the Middle East and the Gulf region.


There may be some who, because of past resentments and disagreements, might be cheering for failure.  I would respectfully suggest that these sentiments are dangerously shortsighted and self-destructive.  The first and secondary effects of failure in Iraq – with all of its economic, religious, security, and geopolitical implications – will be felt in all the capitals and communities of the Middle East well before they are felt in the United States.  The forces that would be unleashed – of sectarian strife, of an emboldened extremist movement with access to sanctuaries – do not recognize national boundaries and would surely target any government perceived to be a hindrance to their expansion of power.


Any nation that supports insurgents or militias in Iraq – either actively or passively – is in reality doing harm to itself, and to all of the people of the Middle East, be they Sunni, Shia, or any other sect.  The primary victims of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq have not been Coalition troops or Iraqi security forces, but thousands of innocent civilians – men, women, and children whose only crime was to go to market or attend Friday prayers.


The terrorists have made their designs clear.  Wherever they have seized territory in the past, they have made manifest their dark vision for the world.  The future they seek is characterized not by piety or virtue, but by fear and intimidation.  Not by martyrs holding true to their Islamic faith, but by criminals and suicide bombers whose only true allegiance is to murder and chaos.


But just as the nations of the Middle East have the most to lose from chaos in Iraq, they also have the most to gain from a secure, stable, and prosperous Iraq:


  • An Iraq that is a net contributor to security in the Gulf;
  • An Iraq that will be a strong and vibrant trading partner;
  • An Iraq with the potential to set an example of responsive, effective governance; and
  • An Iraq that helps bridge the sectarian divides in this part of the world. 

I urge you to exercise your influence with the Iraqis and encourage them to meet their own goals and expectations, to live up to their own promises.  I also urge you to help them in every way you can – by dampening homegrown insurgencies, by alleviating sectarian strife, by providing economic and diplomatic support.  Iraq is a multi-ethnic Arab state, like many in the region.  For other Arabs to withhold support and friendship because of the composition of Iraq’s government, and as that government determines its future path at home and with its neighbors, is to increase the risk of the very outcome many in the region fear.


Iraq is not an island, and its future is closely tied to the behavior of its neighbors – for better or for worse.  Which brings me to Iran.


For 29 years I have been watching the Iranian government intently, at the Central Intelligence Agency, at the National Security Council, and now at the Department of Defense.  My first direct encounter with the leaders of the revolutionary government of Iran was in Algiers in October 1979, just eight months after that government came to power.  For 29 years, I have followed this government’s words, its promises – mostly hollow – and, more tellingly, its deeds, both overt and covert.


This week, however, marks a watershed.  Astonishingly, the revolutionary government of Iran has this week, for the first time, embraced as valid an assessment of the United States intelligence community – on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  And since that government now acknowledges the quality of American intelligence assessments, I assume that it will also embrace as valid American intelligence assessments of:


·         Its funding and training of militia groups in Iraq;

·         Its deployment of lethal weapons and technology to both Iraq and Afghanistan;

·         Its ongoing support of terrorist organizations – like Hezbollah and Hamas – that have murdered thousands of innocent citizens; and

·         Its continued research and development of medium-range ballistic missiles that are not particularly cost-effective unless equipped with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction.


In reality, you cannot pick and choose only the conclusions you like of this recent National Intelligence Estimate.  The report expresses with greater confidence than ever that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program – developed secretly, kept hidden for years, and in violation of its international obligations.  It reports that they do continue their nuclear enrichment program, an essential long lead time component of any nuclear weapons program.  It states that they do have the mechanisms still in place to restart their program.  And, the estimate is explicit that Iran is keeping its options open and could restart its nuclear weapons program at any time – I would add, if it has not done so already.  Although the Estimate does not say so, there are no impediments to Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program – none, that is, but the international community.


Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents – Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.  There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.


Considering all this, the international community should demand that the Iranian government come clean about the extent of its past illegal nuclear weapons development.  The international community should insist that Iran suspend enrichment.  The international community should require that the Iranian government openly affirm that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons in the future and, further, that it agree to inspection arrangements that will give us all confidence that it is adhering to that commitment.


Let us be realistic.


Although our nations have differing perspectives and histories, we nonetheless share a deep concern about Iran’s current course.  While we must keep all our options open, the United States and the international community must continue – and intensify – our economic, financial, and diplomatic pressures on Iran to suspend enrichment and to agree to verifiable arrangements that can prevent that country from resuming its nuclear weapons program at a moment’s notice – at the whim of its most militant leaders.  That should be a matter of grave concern to every government in the world.  Let us continue to work together to take the necessary peaceful but effective measures necessary to bring a long-term change of policies in Tehran.


The challenges that I have discussed – and others – require that civilized nations – in the Gulf and worldwide – work together in ways that previously may have seemed unnecessary, or even unwelcome, but that are an absolute necessity today.


In the past, bilateral arrangements with the United States have helped maintain a balance of power in the Gulf region.  While such partnerships are important, the United States seeks to encourage more multilateral ties and cooperation with and among our friends in the region.


In October, we began the third round of talks in the Gulf Security Dialogue, a strategic framework designed to enhance and strengthen regional security – which includes strengthening Iraq.  The Gulf Security Dialogue helps counter conventional as well as unconventional, asymmetric, and terrorist threats by focusing on six key pillars:


·         Defense cooperation;

·         Developing a shared assessment and agenda on Iraq;

·         Regional stability, especially with respect to Iran;

·         Energy infrastructure security;

·         Counter-proliferation; and

·         Counter-terrorism.


I would like to expand briefly on the first pillar – defense cooperation – which may be of particular interest to this audience.  Defense cooperation discussions in the Dialogue specifically addressed issues such as shared early warning, cooperative air and missile defense, and maritime security awareness. 


Initiatives like the Bilateral Air Defense Initiative could become a stepping stone to a multilateral effort to develop regional air and missile defense systems that would provide more comprehensive coverage, a regional protective – defensive – umbrella.  We should bear in mind the deterrent effect such a system would have.  If the chances of a successful attack are greatly reduced, then so too is the value of pursuing offensive weapons systems and delivery systems.


Maritime security awareness might include developing a maritime surface picture and standard operating procedures against seaborne threats, such as terrorism, piracy, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling.


All told, the Dialogue will bolster the defensive capabilities of nations in the region, while not diminishing our bilateral relationships or U.S. commitments in the region.  This framework will also enhance interoperability between our armed forces and foster cooperation among participating nations through exercises and training.  As the U.S. Secretary of State said last July, “Through our Gulf Security Dialogue, we are helping to strengthen the defensive capabilities of our partners . . . [to] support their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region.”


The Gulf Security Dialogue is not intended to replace ongoing bilateral and multilateral efforts, but rather to enhance such efforts by building the capacity of gulf nations to deal with common threats in partnerships with the United States.


Two weeks ago, representatives from 49 nations gathered in Annapolis, where Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to begin negotiations toward achieving a lasting peace.  Some people have criticized the Annapolis summit because of what it represented – a process, or the beginning of a process, as opposed to immediate results.  I believe this view is shortsighted.


During the 1970s, many people discounted the value of holding strategic talks with the former Soviet Union – America’s most dangerous adversary – because these meetings often did not lead directly to new arms control breakthroughs.  It turned out that maintaining the dialogue helped each side better understand the other’s intentions, and laid the groundwork for gains that ultimately brought the Cold War to a close.  With persistence, courage, and good faith on both sides, I believe it will be possible to see what President Bush called “the expansion of freedom and peace in the Holy Land.”


I believe that through these and other initiatives, with the right leadership from the countries represented in this room, there will arise new possibilities for the citizens of the Middle East.  After all, we are living at a time where, as never before, people here and around the globe are demanding and making progress toward peace, political openness, and an economic system that works for themselves and their families.


For all of the difficulties we now confront – and they are daunting, to be sure – I believe that, over time, there can be a very different future – a different narrative, if you will – for this part of the world.  A future:


  • Where trade, commerce, and economic opportunity lead to a growing middle class and a higher quality of life for workers and their families;
  • Where Palestine and Israel are living in peace side by side as viable, secure, and independent states;
  • Where men and women have an increasingly greater say and a greater stake in how they govern their own lives, their own communities, and their own countries; and
  • Where citizens from Tehran to Baghdad to Beirut can look forward to a life secure from the assassin, the suicide bomber, and the proverbial knock on the door in the middle of the night. 

Reaching these goals cannot be achieved by any one nation alone – no matter how wealthy or powerful.  And they certainly will not be achieved by military means alone.


That said, there may be some in the region who believe that the staying power and strength of the United States have been diminished or undermined by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They may believe our resolve has been corroded by the challenges we face at home and abroad.


This would be a grave misperception.  Over the past century, many nations and empires and movements have looked to our shores in search of signs of vulnerability – signs that Americans are weak or undisciplined; that we are stretched thin and unable to fulfill our commitments; that we do not have the patience or the will to face a long-term challenge; that open and vigorous debate in our democracy reflects underlying divisions and irresolution with respect to defending our vital interests.


Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union – all made this fundamental miscalculation.  All paid the price.  All are on the ash heap of history.

As I have said before, restraint should never be confused with weakness.


Surveying the overall trajectory of the Middle East, I believe the greatest challenges we face will ultimately be decided by the choices we make – choices faced by all of the governments represented here:


  • Between the divisions and rancor of the past, and the strength and stability that comes from reconciliation and cooperation;
  • Between proxy wars that victimize innocents, and support for the brave men and women who are struggling to rebuild and secure their homelands;
  • Between safe detachment from the plight of one’s neighbors, and working to improve stability and prosperity for everyone in the region. 

As we consider the security challenges of today, we must be ever cognizant that the choices we make will for many years weigh heavily on the fate of our peoples.  To meet great expectations, we must all be willing to take risks – for peace, for security, for the future of our children.


Thank you.