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U.S. CENTCOM Gulf States Chiefs of Defense Conference

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Fairfax Hotel, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thank you General Petraeus for that kind introduction, and it’s an honor to be here with the chiefs of defense.  And many thanks to the leaders of CENTCOM for hosting this conference.  First let me welcome you to Washington and offer greetings on behalf of President Obama.  This event provides me an opportunity to convey to you his message of continuity and commitment to all of America’s friends and partners in the Gulf region and the Middle East.  Today, I'd like to discuss with you the most pressing security challenges faced by the United States and the nations of the Gulf and other Arab states, and offer some thoughts on how we can deal with those challenges through greater unity, cooperation, and resolve.

Since my career in government began more than 42 years ago, the security and stability of the Gulf region have been a central concern of every U.S. administration regardless of party.

·        I was on the National Security Council staff at the White House in the 1970s when the “Carter Doctrine” was formulated, 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 led to the creation of the United States Central Command;

·        During the 1980s, the United States stood with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to protect tankers and keep vital sea lanes open; and

·        Then, of course, the coalition that came together in 1990 to repel aggression against Kuwait.

·        In short, America has been a steadfast and reliable security partner for our friends in the Gulf and the Middle East for a long time and will continue to be.

Today’s security environment in the Gulf poses new dilemmas and opportunities that span national borders.  They include Iran’s nuclear missile program; terrorist networks, militias, and criminal groups; Iraq’s nascent government and improved security situation; the enduring need to protect the free flow of trade and vital resources;  and the serious security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which, as I will describe later, also has implications for the Middle East.

I would note that in the past, this region has lacked an enduring political basis for cooperation, but venues like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Gulf Security Dialogue are making important inroads.  These forums cover a wide range of matters – from trade and critical energy infrastructure to counter-terrorism and regional stability.  And so for a few minutes, I want to focus on -- in particular on missile, air, and maritime surveillance and defense.

We have made good progress in this area over the past two years.  Several Gulf Cooperation Council nations are acquiring, or have expressed interest in, Shared Early Warning – near real-time information on air and missile attacks that would allow maximum time for a nation to defend itself.  Additionally, all GCC countries have expressed a desire to obtain, or are already obtaining, active defense systems.  This demonstrates the GCC’s commitment to regional security and interoperability with each other and with the United States.

Maritime security – and potentially new and better means of cooperation – has become a salient issue with the high-profile acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.  As with terrorism, piracy is a problem that has serious international implications, and should be of particular concern to any nation that depends on the seas for commerce.  Last year, Combined Maritime Forces, based in Bahrain, established a Maritime Security Patrol Area in the Gulf of Aden to keep shipping lanes safe.  I encourage you to continue to participate in this important mission.  Given the vast coastal areas we are talking about – more than a million square miles – there are limits to patrolling alone.  More must be done:

·        Members of the international community must work together to aggressively pursue and deter piracy under the U.N. Security Council resolution passed late last year;

·        Companies and ships must be more vigilant about staying in recommended traffic corridors – and should consider increasing their security personnel and non-lethal defensive capabilities; and

·        Gulf nations might develop a common maritime surface picture and standard operating procedures against seaborne threats beyond piracy – such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling.

Efforts like these bolster the defensive capabilities of everyone involved, without diminishing pre-existing bilateral or multilateral relationships.  They are, I believe, a model for how all of us can better address the challenges of the 21st century by fostering collaboration in and among the nations of the Gulf.

Because the array of security issues affecting the Gulf are all interrelated, they are best addressed through a comprehensive approach, where nations work together using all elements of national power – military, diplomatic, and economic.

The primary example I would offer in this regard is Iran – whose pursuit of a nuclear weapon could set off an arms race in the Gulf, and whose regional meddling has already cost too many lives.  Like you, we have watched the aftermath of the Iranian election with interest and concern.  While this is an issue that should be decided within Iran by the Iranian people, we firmly believe that the Iranian people deserve to have their voices heard free from violence and intimidation.

The new U.S. administration has reached out to Tehran.  As President Obama said:  “The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.”  That future must not include a nuclear weapon or destabilizing activities in the region.  Engaging diplomatically on these issues will test Iranian intentions and claims of good faith.  Even as the U.S. engages with Iran, we will move to strengthen non-proliferation norms and work with allies and partners to see that their fundamental security interests are protected.  Where necessary, we will take action by conducting counter-terrorism operations; and sharing intelligence for the interdiction of illegal shipments of weapons or materiel.

Iran has openly threatened the existence of the state of Israel, and in so doing has complicated efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace.  President Obama is fully committed to supporting a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel.  This outcome would do much to weaken the proxies of Iran – organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, whose violence is directed at undermining not just Israel but other governments in the region.

Furthermore, there is little doubt that Iran is engaged directly in a campaign to influence the development and direction of its neighbor to the west.  Iraq -- Iran trains and supplies groups trying to destabilize the elected Iraqi government – more often than not through violence and attacks on Iraqi security forces, government installations, and officials.  Iran also engages in more subtle forms of coercion intended to shape the direction of the new Iraq.  The embrace of Iraq by its fellow Gulf states will help contain the ambitions of Iran.  As I have said before, the Iraqi people want to be your partners.  Given the challenges in the Gulf, and the reality of Iran, you should wish to be theirs.

The benefits would be mutual: the Iraqi people and their elected government want to play a constructive regional role.  Whether they can do so depends in substantial measure on the nations represented here.  For the better part of 50 years, the government of Iraq too often has been a bad actor in the region – inflicting suffering on its own people and on many others.  To be sure, I am aware that, in international affairs, old wounds do not heal easily.  However, if we look closely at Iraq’s political and economic potential, it is clearly in the Gulf nations’ strategic interest to support the new government and the people of Iraq.  Iraq’s neighbors should lend support with intelligence-sharing and must increase their border-control efforts, especially those nations that have thus far failed to live up to pledges to tighten border crossings.  Iraq, moreover, should be considered for membership in regional forums such as the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Great security progress has been made in Iraq over the past two years.  There remain those who wish to see the new Iraq fail – and who will continue to kill innocent civilians to further this goal, as we have seen in Anbar, Diyala, and Ninewa provinces lately.  Success depends, in the final analysis, on the fortitude of the Iraqi people and the leaders they choose.  Yet, as the United States responsibly draws down its presence, we look for sustained international and regional support that will allow Iraq to take full charge of its own security and rejoin the family of nations.

Though Afghanistan is outside the regional focus of this conference, it is nonetheless a vitally important topic for Gulf security interests.  Al Qaeda and its ideology were incubated in the failed state of Afghanistan, and the extremists have largely returned their attention there in the wake of reversals in Iraq.  But as we have seen from attacks and Al Qaeda planning and activities across the Middle East and Europe, the danger reaches far beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan has become the U.S. military’s main effort and central front.  President Obama has authorized some 21,000 additional U.S. troops, including more than 10,000 Marines in the southern part of the country reinforcing our British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, and Danish allies.  As you know, President Obama has ordered a comprehensive new civil-military strategy – focused on protecting the Afghan people – and appointed a new leadership team.

Our goal is an Afghanistan that:

·     Does not provide a sanctuary for Al Qaeda;

·     That rejects the rule of the Taliban; and

·     Has a government that works for the needs and security of the Afghan people who elected it.

The U.S. government is also sending more than 400 civilians to the country, most of whom will be deployed outside the capital, to the provincial reconstruction teams and various other units laboring to bring improvements to the lives of Afghans at the provincial and district levels.  I believe that, with the new strategy, we and our international and Afghan partners will have both the military and civilian capacity to be able to make real headway. 

Of course, the situation in Afghanistan cannot be addressed in isolation from its neighbors.  To a considerable degree, the Taliban resurgence began when Pakistan made peace agreements with various insurgent and extremist groups on its western border.  This allowed them more freedom of movement and an effective base of operations.  That approach by the Pakistani government has come to an end.  There is now a clear recognition by the Pakistanis on the direct threat the extremists pose to their national survival.  The recent offensive by the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley was most certainly an encouraging first step.

Also encouraging is the support Afghanistan has received from other nations, including members of the Gulf community.  We are grateful for that assistance but urge you to do more – to improve Afghan governance, reconstruction, economic development, and security capacity.

The application of more resources, improved cooperation, a better integrated civil, military, and diplomatic strategy – and the benefit of lessons learned both in country and in Iraq – present a historic but fleeting opportunity to turn the situation in Afghanistan around.  I hope you will help us take that opportunity.

In closing, I would like to strike a note of optimism – perhaps cautious optimism, at any rate – about the state of affairs in the Gulf region.  I think it is warranted because, while many of the problems in the Middle East have a long history, we should also stop and recognize elements of the overall picture that have changed.  They include:

·        An Iraq slowly but surely fighting its way out of the darkness of the recent decades;

·        Positive political trends in places like Lebanon, Pakistan, and Iraq, where the electorates gravitated toward parties that stand for pluralism, and away from parties that foment religious extremism; and

·        Last but not least, the unprecedented cooperation between the nations of the Gulf as you, and we, face these very difficult and dangerous threats to our common security.

As I said at the outset, American administrations led by both parties, going back some six decades, have regarded the stability of the Gulf Region as a vital national interest for the United States.  The eight Presidents I have been privileged to serve all recognized that our security and prosperity were closely tied to the security and prosperity of the Middle East.  President Obama is no different – he has pledged that America will continue to be present and engaged in this part of the world – to protect our enduring interests, and those of our allies and partners.

As we look ahead, let us pledge to keep these efforts strong and make them even stronger – to cast aside old animosities and work together in friendship.  Forging ever-closer ties between your militaries and U.S. Central Command, and with each other, all of this will bring a better and brighter future for all of our peoples.  Thank you very much.

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