Gates deflects criticism, defends U.S. policy

February 12, 2007|By Peter Spiegel | Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MUNICH, Germany -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to dismiss yesterday accusations by Russia's president that a militaristic U.S. foreign policy was destabilizing global security, brushing aside the remarks as the "blunt speaking" of a fellow former spy.

Speaking at an international security conference here less than 24 hours after the harangue by Vladimir V. Putin, Gates, who spent most of his career as a Soviet analyst at the CIA, made light of the accusations, saying they reminded him of his former profession.

"As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time," Gates said. "Almost."

Putin's criticisms were among the harshest of his presidency, accusing the United States of ignoring international law to impose its will in all aspects of international affairs, spreading fear in smaller counties that has forced them into seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Gates did not address the accusations directly but noted that he and Putin shared backgrounds as intelligence officers, where directness is highly valued. He added that his stint as head of Texas A&M University had taught him how to "be nice."

"I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking - however, I have been to re-education camp," he said, drawing widespread laughs from an audience made up of senior U.S. and European officials.

He also said he had accepted an invitation from Putin to visit Russia, adding: "One Cold War was quite enough."

The only substantive criticisms of Russia in his speech, which was largely devoted to pressuring European allies to live up to their commitments to NATO and the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, was a passing reference to concerns over Russian arms sales and the use of energy resources for political coercion.

Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister who spoke shortly after Gates, largely chose to ignore the dispute, devoting his prepared remarks to the issue of countering international terrorism.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, speaking on the same panel as Gates yesterday, said Putin's remarks Saturday illustrated why it was important to further enlarge NATO.

The annual Munich Conference on Security Policy has become an increasingly influential gathering, used by Americans and Europeans to take the temperature of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Since 2003, the meeting frequently has been packed with caustic accusations over the Iraq war and was dominated by Gates' predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who used the platform to criticize Western European policies.

Gates, attending his first Munich conference, made a brief but significant break from Rumsfeld in his prepared remarks, noting that in the past, "some have even spoken in terms of `old' Europe versus `new' " - a clear reference to Rumsfeld's differentiation between Western European critics of the Iraq war and newer democracies of Eastern Europe who largely supported the 2003 invasion.

"These characterizations belong to the past," Gates said.

In a question period after his speech, Gates acknowledged that "we also have made some mistakes" that have harmed the U.S. reputation abroad.

"There is no question in my mind that Guantanamo and some of the abuses that have taken place in Iraq have negatively impacted the reputation of the United States," Gates said. He added that while he ideally would like to close the military prison in Cuba there are "real terrorists" being held there.

"For the last century, one of the great assets the United States has had is that most people around the world felt that while we might from time to time do something stupid, we were a force of good around the world," Gates said. "I believe a lot of people still believe that, and I think that what we have to focus on as we look to the future is strengthening that reputation."

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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