Joint Media Availability with Secretary Gates and British Secretary of State for Defence Fox from London
SEC. FOX: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's my tremendous pleasure to welcome Secretary Gates to London today. We've spent a few days in Singapore. We had a good number of preliminary meetings.
Today we've managed to carry on the conversations that we began there. We've had a very wide range of discussions on a wide range of issues. We talked about Afghanistan and how we both remain mutually committed to success in Afghanistan.
We talked about the forthcoming British Defence and Security Review. I've been looking for a few tips from the secretary about how it was done in the United States. And we face many of the same problems of budgetary constraints, but at a time of deteriorating, internationally, security positions.
We talked about NATO reform. We will both be attending the NATO meeting over the next few days, and we're very committed, again, to the process of reform within NATO.
We talked about the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrence and the willingness of the new government and their determination to see that we go ahead with a continuous at sea minimum credible British nuclear deterrence.
And we have been discussing the issue of Iran. Iran is a subject that we discussed widely at Singapore. We have a number of worries about how that situation is developing.
We see the problems in Iran as being threefold. First of all, we worry about the nature of the region itself. We seem to be watching an increasingly militarized state with a hard-line, theocratic head of state, something that is not replicated anywhere else.
Secondly, we've seen the willingness of Iran to use its power to destabilize its neighbors. We've seen it happening in Iraq; we've seen it happening in Afghanistan. We don't want to see it happening in the wider region. We don't want to see the export of terror to any other parts of the region or the globe.
And thirdly, I think the overwhelming fear we have is that if Iran is to become a nuclear-weapon state, it may well be the end of NPT [Nuclear Proliferation Treaty] as we know it. And after all the sacrifice that both our countries made getting us to the end of the Cold War, limiting nuclear proliferation and having just celebrated last year 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we surely want to do more than leave the next generation a legacy of a new nuclear arms race in the world's most unstable region.
So we do not have our problems to look for. We recognize that there are a range of very difficult issues in security regionally and internationally that we would want to share with -- but we have the tremendous comfort of the strong and enduring relationship between our two countries. When Winston Churchill first spoke back in Fulton, Missouri, about the special relationship, he did it as a wartime leader, someone who understood the military and intelligence implications of that relationship. It wasn't some dewy-eyed, gooey, Disneyesque love-in. It was a hard-headed assessment of the national interests of both countries.
And we have been discussing that special relationship very much in terms of the national security imperatives for both countries. And I have to say that it has been a wide-ranging, very friendly, and extraordinarily productive set of discussions we've had.
So you are extremely welcome -- (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: Thank you, Liam.
It's a pleasure to be back in London to confer with the new leadership of one of our oldest and closest allies. The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is based on profound cultural and historic ties that stretch back generations and transcend any political moment or political party.
This truth was evident in my meeting yesterday with the prime minister and my working lunch today with Defence Secretary Fox.
In conversations with Dr. Fox over the last month I've been impressed by his understanding of the myriad security challenges we face, from the mission in Afghanistan to Iran and North Korea, to the threat of terrorism which has, unfortunately, touched both our shores.
Today we talked at length about his vision for the British Armed Forces and the upcoming Strategic British Defence and Security Review. The U.S. Department of Defense is grappling with many of the same dilemmas as we look forward to an era of fiscal austerity, even as the strategic landscape continues to evolve.
On a related topic, Defence Secretary Fox and I both expressed our desire to see serious and far-reaching reforms at NATO, something we will take up together at the defense ministers meeting in Brussels later this week.
I was also very interested to hear Dr. Fox's views on his recent trip to Afghanistan. Right now, 9,500 British troops are demonstrating incredible courage on the battlefields of southern Afghanistan.
I told Dr. Fox how much we in America appreciate this nation's leadership in this effort, and I offered my condolences for the nearly 300 British troops who have been lost in the conflict, including several just this week. To paraphrase a poet from the Great War, the British fighting men and women have more than done their bit and they've had their share.
So too have other coalition troops, a point driven home by the terrible losses we suffered just yesterday, including six American soldiers, two U.S. Marines, and two Australian soldiers. Even as we mourn all these fallen heroes and pray for their families, we stand in awe of their valor and their service.
Throughout the long years of this unique alliance, the United States and Britain have fought side by side and endured many shared sacrifices. Along with our European partners, we have made common cause against dictators, tyrants and virulent ideologies seeking to destroy the foundations of the free world. And we've expended untold amounts of blood and treasure to unite Europe and protect the values upon which our societies are built.
Today, as we face new challenges in a new century, I am confident that this special relationship will be, as it has been in the past, the bedrock alliance of partners guaranteeing a peaceful and prosperous future.
Dr. Fox, Liam, thank you again for hosting me, and thank you for your nation's steadfast friendship over many, many years.
SEC. FOX: Thank you very much, Bob. Thank you so much for those kind, hugely appreciated words.
We're going to take a few questions from the floor. I'll begin with Adam Entous from Reuters.
Q Thank you very much. This is a question for both of you --
Are you confident that the U.N. Security Council will pass the new Iran resolution as early as tomorrow, and how soon after it passes do you expect individual states and bodies like the U.S. and the E.U. to impose more far-reaching follow-on sanctions that Mr. Gates has referred to in the past? And how worried are you that Iran's program has advanced so far towards a bomb that these sanctions are too little too late?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I'm optimistic that the Security Council will vote a resolution. I've been away from Washington too long, too many days to know whether tomorrow or the next day is the most likely, but I am hopeful that a resolution will be passed very soon.
In terms of how fast nations can act once the resolution has been passed, I've said on a number of occasions one of the many benefits of the resolution is that it will provide a legal platform for individual nations to then take additional actions that go well beyond the resolution itself. And I believe that a number of nations are prepared to act pretty promptly.
But first things first. The key is getting the resolution.
I do not think we have lost the opportunity to stop the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon, developing nuclear weapons. I think that the clock is ticking, but I think that if there is international cooperation, and we have the potential to stop the development of this weapon.
The key here is a combination of diplomacy and pressure in persuading the Iranians that they are headed in the wrong direction in terms of their own security, that they will undermine their security by pursuit of nuclear weapons, not enhance it.
For one thing, their obtaining a nuclear weapon would almost certainly lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the Middle East in a number of other countries.
And so I think that we do have the opportunity; I think the resolution is important and the faster it can be passed, the better.
SEC. FOX: I share the hope that we can get the resolution as quickly as possible. And I think that it's important for a number of political reasons.
One is that it makes it very clear to the Iranian leadership our seriousness in terms of dealing with the issue itself. It also, I hope, sends a signal to the people of Iran that we don't have a quarrel with them. We have a quarrel with their government's nuclear program.
We believe that we need to deal with this for reasons of regional and global security. Therefore, it's also important for them, secondly, to recognize that this is not a series of sanctions being applied by a small number of countries against the Iranian leadership, but the entire global community which is united in international law in trying to prevent what would be a major destabilization in terms of international security.
And I returned this morning from Abu Dhabi, where it's just one of a number of countries in the region which has become increasingly alarmed by the prospect of the Iranian nuclear program and, like many of the rest of us, share the fears of what a collapse of the nonproliferation arrangements might mean.
So it is of enormous international importance that we show united resolve and maintain our nerve in making it very clear to the regime in Teheran that their program and their ambitions as far as nuclear weapons are concerned is simply not acceptable to the global community.
Caroline? Caroline Wyatt, for the BBC.
Q This is for both of you. President Obama has spoken of starting to draw down forces in Afghanistan in the middle of next year. There's a sense some NATO members could keep there after the exit.
Will we really stay there for as long as it takes? How will we know when Afghanistan is stable enough to leave? Just how crucial is success in Kandahar this summer to all that?
SEC. FOX: Well, I can take the first point.
When the prime minister asked me to take on this job, the first question I asked myself was should we be in Afghanistan? I've seen the human cost to our armed forces themselves, the sacrifices that they're making. And when I did ask the question. The answer had to be, of course, yes.
I still believe that there's a national security imperative. I believe that we cannot afford Afghanistan to lapse back into a failed state, which will create a security vacuum which will contaminate the region and possibly well beyond it.
I also believe that we need to look after the wider security interests in the region, see it as a regional problem and, obviously, with the potential problems with Pakistan and across the border. So I think we do have an obligation there in terms of wider security interests.
How committed are we? Well, we're committed to see it through to resolution. And by that I mean creating a stable enough Afghanistan to manage its own internal and external security, which is why the NATO training mission is of such importance and why again we will be emphasizing the importance of that and the potentially increased contributions from NATO members to that at the Summit.
And I think that we need to be very clear that the -- we do not wish to be in Afghanistan any longer than we have to, to fulfill the conditions that we set ourselves. We want the government of Afghanistan to be by the Afghans, for the Afghans. And our aim is to see a transition from where we are now to a position where the Afghan authorities can maintain the security of their own country and we can leave, but leave behind a peaceful legacy, rather than a threat.
SEC. GATES: What President Obama has made clear is that July 2011 is the beginning of a process of transition. How fast that transition proceeds will depend on the conditions on the ground and -- as will the pacing of any withdrawals of alliance forces.
I think one of the important messages that we tried to communicate during President Karzai's visit to Washington, and that I think is important for all of us to communicate, is that we intend, as an alliance and as a large group of nations, to be Afghanistan's partner for a very long time into the future.
Our belief is that beginning in July 2011 the nature of that relationship will begin to transition to fewer military forces and more civilian forces, more development, more contributions to trying to build an Afghan economy -- the kind of developmental relationship that many of us have with a number of developing states around the world.
Part of the challenge that we face in Afghanistan is, frankly, the fact that after the Soviets were driven out in 1988, we in the United States and others basically abandoned Afghanistan, walked away from it. And the result was, a few years later, the takeover of the Taliban.
Every measure that we have is that the -- shows that the Taliban are immensely unpopular in Afghanistan. Perhaps 10 percent of the Afghan people want to see a return of the Taliban. But they do have enormous capabilities in terms of intimidation and terror.
And so what our mission is about is creating a security environment in which the Afghans can govern themselves and move into the future. The key is convincing the Afghan people that not necessarily with 150,000 foreign troops but with our commitment of resources and effort we will continue to partner with them far into the future.
So I think the key here is that July 2011 is the beginning of the transition, and that that will be conditions based.
SEC. FOX: You asked about Kandahar in particular. It is one of a number of operations that are important. What is happening in terms of the transition in security in Afghanistan is happening at a number of different paces in different parts of the country.
I think we all have to be careful to not make Helmand [province], in this country, in the United Kingdom, synonymous with Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it was wider in the context of there are real gains being made in terms of the transition to Afghan authorities.
Kandahar, one of the biggest cities in Afghanistan, clearly would benefit from getting a reduction in the excessive level of corruption there, gaining greater political stability and being able to enjoy some of the fruits of their own labors economically that they would wish to have.
It is not absolutely the key for the coalition, but we do want to make progress there. We have to see progress made on a number of fronts, in a number of places, and over a wider time scale.
So if we could gain one thing, the key that tells us it's success or failure or any one timeline telling us its success or failure, I don't think is how we should be viewing it. Can we get conditions to improve over time? And that has to be a key to what we're doing there.
It's also important, I think, that the people understand the difficulties that we're facing on the ground in Afghanistan.
I sometimes think when we take journalists to Afghanistan they go from the airport to central Kabul, and you've probably seen the most -- you've seen the most developed part of the entire country. Out there in the hinterland, we're seeing 20 percent across the whole country in terms of people who can’t read and write, where you're seeing a much lower life expectancy of the people -- (inaudible) -- this country. Far more people living in the countryside than we get in most developed countries.
Few understand the -- some of the problems that are actually faced in terms of governance will not be solved overnight. But progress is being made and some of those transitions performed.
Craig Whitlock, from The Washington Post.
Q Thank you.
The secretary-general yesterday warned members of the alliance against making disproportionate spending cuts in their defense budgets because of the financial crisis. This comes in the face of reports that the U.K. and Germany and others are considering the biggest reductions in the sizes of their militaries since the end of the Cold War.
Dr. Fox, how extensive do you expect the cuts to be in the U.K., and do you think they will curtail the mission to Afghanistan?
Secretary Gates, in February you described that NATO was facing a crisis because of the decade of under-investment in its military capabilities. How would you describe the situation now?
SEC. FOX: I'll be brief. (Laughter.)
We set up our Defence Review to follow a logical sequence. And it has to look at the, first of all, what we believe the U.K.'s foreign policy, based on -- (inaudible) -- our interests in a very complex, interdependent, worldwide economy.
Secondly, what we perceive as the threats to those interests in the period that we can see ahead. Thirdly, what military capabilities do we believe we need to protect those interests in that threat environment. Fourthly, what equipment programs make a reality of those capabilities. And fifthly, what is the financial envelope within which we're working.
We know we've got financial constraints, not least having recently come -- (inaudible) -- in the United Kingdom and we have an inherited a train wreck in the economy. People don't quite understand the size of the public debt in the U.K., but it's probably about the equivalent of borrowing some 1.2 million pounds every single day since the birth of Christ.
And that's put in some sort of perspective for the public, so it's not going to be an easy financial backdrop against which to make decisions in a very difficult global security environment, as Secretary Gates has told us.
But we will carry through in a logical sequence and when we reach the end, we will have to come to a realistic assessment of how much can we reasonably afford, given the crisis that the country faces.
And I'm not going to make any prejudgments of that, because when people ask me the question or tell me that they can give me an idea of what is affordable, I say yes, but can you tell me what's avoidable.
SEC. GATES: I said a while ago that the United States cannot have a strong military without a strong economy. That's true of every country and clearly, most countries are facing economic pressures now.
One way we're trying to deal with what we expect to be extremely limited growth in the American defense budget going forward is to take a very hard look at how we spend our money and to make sure that we're spending it on those things that give us actual military capabilities, both now and in the future.
The effort that I have under way is not about how we fund the current operations -- that's all being taken care of -- but rather how we fund our current force structure and how do we make proper investments in the future.
That requires looking very hard at the way we spend our money that is -- that's being spent in areas other than force structure and investment in modernization.
And I think that many of our -- I would hope, I guess I'll put it that way -- I would hope that our allies, before they consider force structure reductions and reductions more broadly in capabilities, will look overall at how they're spending their money and ensure that they have taken a hard look at overhead and business practices and seeing if there are savings to be realized there that can be used to support needed capabilities.
Every country will have to make those decisions and those evaluations on its own. But I think we all are having to take a hard look in a way that we haven't, perhaps, over the last number of years.
SEC. FOX: We all know that even in very different -- very difficult financial conditions of the present time, and all aspects of government spending need to be examined as to provide value for money and whether they are doing what we need to be doing.
Defense cannot be exempt from that. But we do a review of defense against the backdrop of the number one and most important duty of any government is the defense and protection of the citizens.
(Inaudible) -- Press Association.
Q The question's for both of you, please.
It's been suggested that some or all of the British troops currently in Helmand province could be moved towards Kandahar after the Canadian contingent is withdrawn.
What do you think about this? Did the issue come up in your discussions and if so, what was the outcome?
SEC. GATES: The issue of the withdrawal of the British troops from that area did not come up. The question of whether there need to be additional American forces there to help was discussed. And fundamentally, this is an issue, I think, that needs to be evaluated by General McChrystal.
I'll let Dr. Fox speak to the British intentions, but let me just say that the Sangin area British soldiers are in, in the absolute middle of the thick of the fight, this is some of the toughest area -- this is one of the toughest areas in all of Afghanistan.
It's important in no small part because of the relevance to the future of Afghanistan of the Kajaki Dam in terms of providing electric power.
So this is an area that, in my view at least, that we cannot turn our backs on. But in terms of force dispositions and so on, I think the first person to turn to is General McChrystal in terms of how he sees the disposition of the additional U.S. forces going in and how they complement the efforts of the British and other troops that are already there.
SEC. FOX: I met General McChrystal in Afghanistan for a period two weeks ago. We did, of course, discuss these issues.
And I think the first point to say is that we're there as a coalition. We're there to ensure that the mission is carried out successfully and that we've got to give flexibility to our commanders on the ground to use the forces they have in the way that they think is most effective.
From a British perspective, I would simply point out a couple of practical elements in terms of Kandahar in relation to Helmand. We've been in Helmand for some time. We have carried a very high cost in terms of life and limb with our armed forces.
But we've developed an expertise in understanding the terrain. We understand the personalities in terms of the politics and the governance issues. I think it would be quite a leap for us to leave Helmand to be redeployed in Kandahar and not take into account the enormous cost that there would likely to be in making such a change.
So I think it's highly unlikely that that will happen, and it's certainly not something that we will be proposing. If General McChrystal had wished such a think I'm sure he would have asked us what our view was in terms of moving the British forces in that way.
If he was looking for a proposition the British government, it's highly unlikely we would want to accede to that particular change. And we do want to see a true success in this open country. We're happy with changes in regional command; we're very happy that the counterinsurgency strategy's moving forward. And we think that we are making a very positive contribution, British forces, at the present time.
Thank you all very much indeed.
SEC. GATES: Thank you.
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