Media Availability with Secretary Gates en route to Andrews Air Force Base from Manama, Bahrain
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Good visit, conversations in Bahrain with both the king and the crown prince. I’m convinced that they both are serious about real reform and about moving forward. I think that the concern now is that it’s important that they have somebody to talk to and that the opposition be willing to sit down with the government and carry this process forward. And I know that the State Department is talking to the opposition and today I talked to the king and the crown prince, so we’re hopeful that they can get together and move this forward.
I told the king that I felt that given their readiness to move that they in some respect could show the whole region how you can move forward a process of reform while sustaining stability and continuity. So we’ll see. Good bit of talk about the role of Iran and I expressed the view that we have no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region. But there is clear evidence that as the process is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems. And so I told them that – in the sense that time is not our friend and I also said that under the circumstances and with the impulse behind the political and economic grievances across the region that baby steps probably would not be sufficient to meet the need – that real reform would be necessary. So I’m going to stop there.
Q: Can I ask you what is your level of concern that as this proceeds that we can get results in the short term that direct U.S. interests could be jeopardized, including the Fifth Fleet’s continued presence?
SEC. GATES: I think that’s potentially so far in the future that I wouldn’t even begin to speculate. I don’t see any evidence on the part of any of the players here that the developments would impact the U.S. presence. Who knows what might happen many months down the road, but I don’t see any evidence that our presence would be affected in the near or middle term.
Q: (Inaudible) Bahrain is affecting Saudi Arabia. Do you sense the leadership there recognizes the political climate in the region is changing dramatically?
SEC. GATES: Well, I honestly don’t know. I told both the king and the crown prince that across the region I did not believe there could be a return to the status quo and – that there was change and it could be led or it could be imposed. And that obviously leading reform and being responsive is the way we would like to see this move forward.
Q: Is any of the protests – (inaudible) – any evidence the protests – (inaudible)?
SEC. GATES: No. No.
Q: And do you think there’s any specific – (inaudible) – did you deliver any specifics that you wanted in terms of -- (inaudible) – reforms, the U.S. – (inaudible) – general discussion?
SEC. GATES: We didn’t get into specifics. They already have made a number of changes. They’ve made a number of changes in the cabinet. They have replaced some officials. And I think they’re putting together a pretty robust program and I think a good part of the discussion was the crown prince talking about his thinking for moving the process forward and perhaps a national referendum and so on.
Q: With the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the response to the tsunami in Japan, is there any concern that commitments in Afghanistan, in Iraq as well, become so large it makes it more difficult to respond – (inaudible)?
SEC. GATES: No. Not at all. We have – you know, just so there’s no misunderstanding, and I think maybe some – a little bit too much has been read into some of my remarks last week. If we were directed to undertake a – let me back up. One of the issues under discussion with respect to Libya, obviously, is a no fly zone and I talked about it would be complicated and it would involve considerable resources. If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it.
This is not a question of whether we or our allies can do this. We can do it. The question is whether it’s a wise thing to do. And that’s the discussion that’s going at a political level. But I just want to make clear we have the capacity to do it. Similarly, with respect to Japan, we have the Ronald Reagan closing on Japan right now. We’re sending another amphibious ship – a big deck, the Essex. We’re pulling in helicopters from around the region, including Okinawa and so on. So those two ships can be used for helicopter operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. So we have the assets to handle these things without having any impact at all on Iraq or Afghanistan.
Q: On Japan, if you can continue, can you give us the latest that you know? What is the threat of the nuclear plants right now and what is your latest of all the damage that may have happened with submarines being pulled loose from their moors, ships moving in and damage to buildings?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, you all know where I’ve been through the last several hours and it hasn’t been being briefed on Japan. So I’m behind the curve in terms of the specifics. But I can tell you that the reports that I’ve had is that none of our naval assets were affected and that our people are okay.
I did talk to the ambassador in Japan. Our ambassador in Japan called me this morning and we talked about what we are able to do. And I told him that we would do whatever was asked of us by the Japanese or whatever was needed by the embassy. But we have these assets, as I just said, that are closing on Japan right now. So we’re working very closely with the government of Japan and with our embassy, and we’ll be responsive. But in terms of where we are with respect to the reactor and damage to Japanese facilities and so on, I’m just not up to date.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on Bahrain. Do you have any reason, any sense, from them to think that they might in fact do more than baby steps, as you said? I was on the pearl roundabout today and people said this happens every 10 years. They talk, they make promises and nothing changes. So there’s no trust there.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think – you know, these – the government is to a certain extent between a rock and a hard place. There is a very large Sunni constituency in Bahrain. And, obviously, their neighbors are all watching very closely. So what the – I think what the government needs is for everybody to take a deep breath and provide a little space for this dialogue to go forward. And I believe that based on the things that I’ve heard from the crown prince and the king that they are prepared to do more than just, as I used to put it, baby steps.
Q: When you say baby steps, are you referring to the fact that they need to go further in the reforms that they’re proposing or that they just need to move faster on their timetable?
SEC. GATES: Well, they would like to move faster. Their problem is getting the opposition to sit down with them. And so that’s something that I think is an issue. But I think that they – I have a sense they are prepared to take more far-reaching steps.
Q: Can you tell us about any response or feedback you got at the NATO meeting yesterday from the message that you delivered to your ISAF partners? And if there was any type of response whether or not you expect the partnership any different in a year say than it does today?
SEC. GATES: Well, I certainly hope it doesn’t look different in a year than it does today. You all prompted me to go back and look at my remarks again because I think you all thought they were harsher than I did. And, frankly, I think harsher than some of the people sitting around the table thought they were. But I was trying to send a pretty clear message that it’s in together, out together, you know, to prevent a stampede for the exists, using whatever drawdowns we began with in July as a pretext. And, you know – so I think it was, the way I would describe it, was a cautionary note. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. We’ve still got to 2014 and we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And so maybe we ought to be talking a little bit less about how fast we can get out than how do we get the job done over the next three years.